At parties and network events, family gatherings, and even in daily interactions with friendly colleagues, one of my Dharma Punx community members, Paulina (not her real name), found herself shutting down, tripping on her words while others would talk comfortably about their lives and goals. She felt anxious to the point of immobilization at the thought of making bids for attention. Eventually, this painful anxiety led to avoidance coping: she started dodging social interactions. Confronted with an ever-shrinking world, she began to experience convenient somatic symptoms—she was too tired for this work event, she was coming down with a cold or headache, so she couldn’t go to that party, and so forth.
Many individuals with chronic phobias and anxiety disorders are not so much scared of the external situations they avoid at all costs. Rather, they are often frightened of the physical feelings triggered by those situations: a rapidly beating heart, hyperventilation, contracted abdominal muscles, tight chest muscles, and a spinning, dizzy feeling in the head, along with the parade of inner chatter predicting catastrophic embarrassment.
I was not surprised to hear that Paulina had tried, without success, to implement the typically suggested practices, like pretending there is no fear, reciting self- affirmations aloud in front of the mirror, and so on. (Although such endeavors sound good as suggestions, they fail to address the underlying feelings that seek our attention.) And, as I fully expected, she asked for tools to “get rid of her anxiety” so that she could live up to her ideal of being a self-assured, successful career woman and, as a first-generation immigrant, a fully assimilated American.
In my experience from over a dozen years of providing spiritual counseling to hundreds of practitioners, anxiety arises as the expression of an internal conflict, generally between our felt experience—in Paulina’s case, her feelings of anxiety—and our self-concept, which is an array of beliefs we hold that outline how to act and feel in order to “succeed” in this world. Paulina’s self-concept was the strongly held view that women, especially in professional environments, should always be calm, collected, and effortlessly assertive.
When our felt experience clashes with our self-concept, rather than update our self-concept so that it accounts for our authentic experience, we often respond by suppressing any feelings that contradict our views of how we need to appear if we are to achieve success and acceptance from others. When we do that, the anxiety only grows worse.
The solution is to develop anxiety tolerance—to learn how to observe and hold our felt experience, which involves the ability to greet and observe our most uncomfortable and inconvenient feelings with “unconditional friendliness.” This kind of mindfulness means we can provide a safe container for our fear and soften it into a manageable state.
Perhaps the greatest irony of healing is that it occurs when we accept our felt experience, rather than rely on willpower or focused effort to get rid of the unwanted. In Paulina’s case, the first step toward alleviating both her social anxiety and its attendant underlying fear of rejection was deceptively simple. I suggested that instead of trying to act as if she were calm and collected, she should take the opposite approach and express her felt experience as if authenticity were a sacred spiritual doctrine, first in daily calls with one of her closest friends, then with open-minded colleagues at work. Having a secure base (what the Buddha called kalyanamitta, or a group of supportive friends we can count on to normalize our feelings through empathetic understanding) allows us to express and explore the limits of our felt experience knowing that if we struggle or stumble there will be people to reassure us, through warmth and compassion, and help us deactivate our feelings of embarrassment. And at social gatherings, at the outset of each bid for attention from others, Paulina began to issue a brief acknowledgment of her underlying fear, embracing it without embarrassment—something along the lines of “Please bear with me, as speaking in groups isn’t my forte, but I’d like to say. . . .” As her resistance to anxiety abated and was replaced by acceptance, the situations she had previously avoided lost their terrifying aura, and her life opened up.
As many wonderful psychologists have noted—one is the esteemed Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner— when we stop suppressing our emotional experience, stress and anxiety are invariably alleviated. Instead of the dreadful acting as if there were no fear, we would do well to disclose and own our feelings, for they are every bit as valuable and worthy of attention as our ideas and accomplishments.
Working with Fear Exercise
After developing some state of ease via a concentration-based meditation (observing the breath or reciting lovingkindness phrases, for example), bring to mind a situation that causes fear, a desire to flee or to isolate yourself.
• To further activate the emotion, ask yourself, “How does it feel to be vulnerable? How does it feel to be unsafe?” or other resonant questions.
• Notice any uncomfortable sensations that appear, such as tightness in the abdomen.
• Let go of any tendency to resist the sensations or to stay focused on the mental image that activated the feeling. I’ve even practiced thinking, “Hello, welcome” when fear arises, to remove any tendency to avoid my inner experience.
• Breathe into and relax the areas around the fear, but not the core physical sensations themselves—for example, if we feel our anxiety most acutely in the chest or throat, allow those areas to remain activated; focus on relaxing the shoulders, arms, and abdomen. We’re making space for the fear, allowing it to grow, even though it is uncomfortable. Recognize the impulse to turn away from fear and return to the actual sensations.
• Keep your attention on the sensations of anxiety and investigate how they change, as if you were a zoologist observing a different species.
The goal is to observe and nurture our anxiety. Only when emotions are truly attended to can they be endured and transformed into useful energies that express our needs and help guide us through life.
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