by Nadia Colburn
This is a time of heightened anxiety for many of us in America. But whether you’re anxious and fearful about what you read in the news or something happening closer to home or even in your own body, fear and anxiety have a way of contracting our muscles and our minds.
Sent down a long tunnel of worry, our bodies contract and our shoulders hunch over, as if forced to fit too small a space. The form our bodies assume is self-protective: we try to create a shield over our own heart.
The problem is, this strategy doesn’t work; fear and anxiety don’t actually protect us. It takes many of us a long time to realize this—it certainly took me a long time. For much of my life, I thought on some unconscious level that if I weren’t anxious and fearful about danger, I would be deluding myself, and therefore would be more vulnerable, more exposed, and unable to make wise and prudent decisions.
But over time, I came to realize that, in fact, the opposite is true: being able to breathe through our fear and anxiety, actively working to mitigate them, does not make us more naïve, but instead makes us more awake, more alive and more able to make good decisions that will actually protect and help us and others.
The Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the best teachers on fear. A peace activist in the Vietnam War, he had many experiences of life-threatening danger. He lived with the threat of death by violence, saw great suffering firsthand and lost many close friends.
And yet, he teaches us that when we are in a place of fear and anxiety, we are less able to make good decisions.
After the war, Thich Nhat Hanh helped countless Vietnamese “boat people,” refugees who escaped the communist regime on small, dangerous boats. Time and again, he saw that those who were able to remain calm—who did not succumb to their anxiety and panic— were more likely to survive their rocky boats and the dangerous journey.
So if we are in a state of fear and anxiety, here are three things I recommend doing:
1) Breathe. Remember you are here now. Come back to the present moment. Come back to your body. Come out of your head and into your experience right now, without judgment. Drop the story of what you are feeling and just feel. I also recommend chanting meditations that can help stop our spinning minds and allow us to come back to a sense of joy.
2) Choose an action to do and do it. If you are worried about something, your worry won’t create positive change. Find one or two new things you can do to address your concerns. If you are worried about the political situation, for example, make a realistic practical plan for what you can do to be actively engaged in creating change and stick to it. Then, when worry arises, you can channel your energy into action itself.
3) Remember that worry, anxiety, violence and illness are only facets of human experience, and perennial parts of what it means to be a human. Find the full richness of your human experience. What you are experiencing is not unique to you. And there are always many other sides to human experience—joy, love, friendship, compassion—that are all equally important parts of what it means to be human. Try to water the seeds of positive qualities you want to cultivate. The more you feed and water the seeds you want more of, the more they will grow and bloom for you, so don’t forget to feed what you love.
Photo by Mae Chevrette.