You are not your thoughts
A story about how I overcame anxiety.
Your parents and your teachers — bless them — probably had this absurd idea that when you grew up, you would know how to adult effectively. Know how to build healthy relationships, raise children, and lead successful lives — all by yourself.
They didn’t teach you about the pain of failed love, the burden of mortgage repayments and the stress of traffic. They gave you titbits of wisdom, sure. But for many of us, our early childhood teachers didn’t teach us how to understand doubt, fear, stress and our own thoughts.
Did you know anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia? 1 in 4 Australians will suffer from it at some stage of their lives.
Many of us have experienced moments of anxiety. What if I make an idiot of myself at the party? Will I make it in time for the meeting? What if I stuff up that presentation? Did I leave the heater on? For an ever-growing number of people, anxiety is chronic. The kind of anxiety that doesn’t stop when we see the heater is off.
It’s the kind of anxiety that stops us leaving the house, affects our sleep, our health and our capacity to function at our best. It is an heavy negative presence that can ruin careers, relationships and even people. I know this, because it did those things to me.
For over 10 years, I operated on low levels of anxiety throughout my corporate career, without realising it. I assumed the nerves and edginess were part of corporate life. I supplemented my poor sleep with 3 cups of coffee, my afternoon lulls with chocolate, and my constant self-doubt with procrastination. I had no idea I had anxiety because I never learned what it was. I wasn’t aware until one day, I had an anxiety attack at work.
I remember the day well, I was enjoying my morning coffee. I thought it was just a strong coffee. Damn strong actually — the kind that seems to go straight to your heart. My hands began to tremble. My heart raced and an overwhelming wave of emotion consumed me. My bottom lip started quivering. My first thought was “the fellas can’t see this”. But my staff did see. I’m sure the whole office wondered why I was staring at my computer breathing deeply. I ran out of the office hyperventilating and started fast-walking through the busy city streets.
I knew then that it wasn’t the damn coffee. It was some kind of anxiety attack — the kind that had probably been bubbling away for months, maybe even years. So I did what any sane person on the verge of a nervous breakdown would do — I quit my job and didn’t leave the house, for months.
I saw a lot of experts during that time. Anyone I thought could help me — doctors, psychiatrists, shamanic healers and reiki masters all listened to my story. And they were wonderful people doing their best to help me. Then one day, five words changed my life. It was a during a yoga class like any other, except when I walked out I held in my mind an exit door out of my anxiety. A cure in five words. Whispered by my teacher. Five words that have stayed with me forever. You are not your thoughts.
You can confront your anxiety in many ways. Seeing a psychologist is a great start. A doctor can direct you towards healing, even a nutritionist, who can educate you about the impact your diet has on your mental wellbeing. For me, it was the observing of my own mind and realising I didn’t have to accept every thought that popped in as true. More specifically, it was learning how to be present to the moment-to-moment experiences of my life with a genuine sense of compassionate awareness.
In case you haven’t noticed, you have a mental dialogue going on inside your head that never stops. It just keeps going and going. Have you ever wondered why it talks in there? How does it decide what to say and when to say it? How much of what it says turns out to be true? How much of what it says is even important? And if right now you are hearing, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t have any voice inside my head!” — that’s the voice we’re talking about. — Michael Singer, The Untethered Soul
When you go through any form of suffering, it’s personal. You think you’re the only person having an experience like you’re having. But we all suffer. So you’re not alone. I’ve shared this story many times in person and so many people have commented how they’ve had similar experiences. I worked my way out of a pretty debilitating situation, here’s what worked for me;
You can’t change what you can’t see. Awareness is critical, not only to overcoming anxiety but also getting the most out of this life. When I developed greater awareness I noticed how often my mind would wander away into my thoughts. Replaying what went wrong in the past and catastrophizing about what may go wrong in the future. I noticed I wasn’t able to have a conversation without my mind drifting off into thoughts, usually negative ones. But that awareness is where we begin. It’s where we start to realise we have an overactive mind –like a puppy that won’t sit. It can help to think of what triggers your anxiety — a certain event, a certain drink, maybe even a certain time of day. Sometimes it’s inexplicable, and that’s ok, become aware of it. Once you have that awareness, you are ready to transform it.
When I was first asked to sit and notice my breath and my thoughts, it felt like I was in my version of solitary confinement. Except there were no prison guards and darkness, just anxiety, panic, self doubt and 15 monks in orange robes. Meditation is difficult, transformation is also difficult. Committing to something that we know is good for us is difficult. But I decided living with anxiety was more difficult. I sat, some days 5 minutes, some days 15, eventually 30 minutes twice a day. I began by watching a candle flame, then noticing sensations in my body, eventually settling on Shamata — calm abiding meditation or mindfulness of breath. I learnt I have thoughts, 1000's of freaking thoughts, actually. But that it’s normal, being a relentless thought-factory is normal. I realised I could train my attention to be where I wanted it to be (this moment, this breath) and not on the things I had to do that day. Meditation was a game changer. If you want to begin your practice, try this 7min guided practice.
Acceptance isn’t a meek excuse to avoid fighting back. It’s a serene acceptance of our reality, at that moment. An important aspect of developing acceptance is learning to avoid craving. Craving is when we long for something. It’s okay to want to change and get better, but craving usually makes healing harder. When we crave for our anxiety to disappear quickly, we’re rejecting our current experience. It’s the spiritual equivalent of ‘chin up, tiger’. When we are aware, we can cultivate mindfulness, which involves an attitude of acceptance. This is the opposite of pushing an experience away or craving for an experience. With mindfulness we’re prepared to sit with how we actually are at that moment. This doesn’t mean we want to stay the way we are, it’s simply an acknowledgement of that moment’s sensations. It means we are prepared to accept our reality, exactly where we are — then move skillfully beyond it.
Social media was doing my head in. I became conscious of the impulse to reach into my phone and check my Instagram every time I was alone with my thoughts. Then my email, then my Facebook, then my Snapchat, then my Instagram, again. I would respond to a message within 60 seconds of receiving it. That’s crazy behaviour, but it’s so common. Technology isn’t our enemy, our attention deficiency is. Did you know our attention span is less than a goldfish’s? Dory is literally more present than you. Once we discover our ability to be present, then we can go about finding Nemo. But something has to change. We’re heading towards record levels of stress, anxiety and depression.
You can start of by creating pockets of stillness in your day by disconnecting. I like to keep my phone on flight mode until I leave the house. I’ve switched off all of my notifications so if I need to check social media, I have to actually go into the app and view it. Find ways to disconnect from your devices so you can reconnect to the moment. The people you live with, the food that you’re eating or the sounds outside. Be present with yourself.
Compassion is the ability to understand the emotional state of another and one’s self. When we try to heal from anything, it is crucial that we are gentle with our self. There were moments that I felt like the world was going on around me and I was stuck in the depths of anxious self-pity, but transformation and healing take time. They worsen if we judge our tendencies, thoughts and progress. They soften when we accept where we are and how we got there. Compassion is a virtue that allows us to really embrace the journey towards optimal living.
The journey back from anxiety isn’t an easy one. For serious cases you should definitely see a professional that’s highly credentialed. But hand on my heart, the body and mind has a genuine capacity to heal itself. Start where you are. Start now.
Smile, breathe and go slowly.
All the love, Manoj.