Anxiety is a natural response to being human, says Lion’s Roar’s Chris Pacheco. When we try to control our anxious feelings instead of accepting them, we might end up exacerbating fear and worry. Here, he outlines three main strategies for moving through anxiety.
“I have always been fascinated,” wrote the 20th-century philosopher Alan Watts, “by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it the ‘backwards law.’ When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float. When you hold your breath, you lose it.”
Watts’ notion, recorded over 70 years ago, still holds true today, describing something we’ve all experienced at some point in our lives: the more we force something, the more we receive the opposite of what we actually want. Buddhists refer to this very human dilemma as grasping or attachment and advocate for the opposite, a life of non-attachment.
Non-attachment, from a Buddhist point of view, refers to engaging with our experiences with fluidity. It’s about being flexible rather than fixed, with no expectation of specific outcomes. This isn’t to say that we aren’t to have hopes or dreams or goals, but that we are not defined by the results of our pursuits.
When we detach from our experiences and take a wider view, we give ourselves enough space to see that we are indeed separate from them.
During times of stress, worry, and overwhelm it can be challenging to employ this strategy of non-attachment. After all, we’ve been wired to avoid pain and pursue pleasure.
Much of the advice around working with anxiety focuses on managing stressors and practicing calming techniques. These strategies are helpful, to a point, but they might ultimately distract one from the real issue at hand: Anxiety itself is probably not going anywhere. It’s a natural response to being human. When we try to pretend that we can actually cure anxiety—especially by focusing on controlling it—we might actually delude ourselves and end up exacerbating our anxiety.
Paradoxically, when we begin to accept everything, both the good and the bad, we begin to feel less anxious. When we “force” ourselves to be happy, we end up being more miserable. In pushing to always feel secure in the world, we end up insecure. This is the suffering we experience when we grasp rather than let go. This is the result of attachment and the law of reversed effort in action.
Security, then, comes from embracing the very things that make us feel insecure. Lasting happiness doesn’t arise as a result of always being positive, but rather of facing life head-on, without expectations, and learning to bear our experiences for what they are.
So how does one find happiness and contentment amidst the anxiety so prevalent around us?
1. Name It to Tame It
For many of us, it can be difficult to name our experiences. Having grown out of touch with our daily emotions we tend to lump what we feel into the baskets of either happy, sad, angry or fearful. Is it possible that instead of feeling fearful, we are overwhelmed? Instead of feeling angry, might we actually feel disrespected? This might sound like nuance, but research and Buddhist wisdom seem to agree that there is power in words. Proper labeling of not only our feelings, but also our thoughts, can offer insight and lasting change.
(In order to correctly label what we are experiencing, it’s important to have the vocabulary to do so. It might be helpful to refer to the Feelings Wheel, which expands on the seven common emotions and provides deeper context that can better direct us towards our current state.)
One might be surprised to know that putting feelings into words, especially negative ones, has long been thought to be the best way in managing them. Matthew Lieberman of UCLA coined this as affect labeling, and research from his team shows that labeling emotions decreases activity in the brain’s emotional centers, diminishing the response of the amygdala and other limbic regions to negative emotional images.
Vipassana is a Buddhist practice that is sometimes referred to as Insight meditation, and it consists of being aware of one’s moment by moment experiences. This practice, which is the core of mindfulness practice, is non-judgmental. There is no clinging. One acts as a curious spectator to whatever arises in each moment. The practice of mental noting, a common component to Insight meditation, involves repeatedly labeling thoughts, feelings, and sensations with the intention of understanding their true nature. With practice, we begin to see that nothing is fixed; our thoughts, feelings, and sensations are constantly changing. It’s all impermanent.
As we develop a richer vocabulary, we become better equipped to accurately label our emotions, and by doing so, our ability to work through them in a healthier way increases.
Writing in a journal is another way to harness and work with the power of words. Journaling has been linked to better emotional processing. After a 12-week study incorporating positive affect journaling, patients with elevated anxiety symptoms showed decreases in mental distress and increases in overall well-being. Expressive writing has also been linked to health benefits including significant decreases in depression scores for people with major depressive disorder. These positive effects remained at the 4-week follow up, suggesting that journaling can not only contribute to our present health, but to our longer-term well-being.
You can begin a daily practice of journaling by simply writing down what you’re currently feeling. You can also take it a step further and write about your deepest thoughts and feelings related to specific traumatic emotional events. Either way, journaling is a low-cost, effective, and proven way to help regulate and reduce negative emotions.
2. Feel It to Heal It
Machig Labdrön was an 11th-century yogini and renowned Tibetan tantric Buddhist adept whose teachings and practices of Chöd (literally “severance” or “cutting through”) have profoundly influenced Tibetan Buddhism. Drawing from Chöd, the modern teacher Lama Tsultrim Allione developed a five-step process called Feeding Your Demons, in which one allows themself to be consumed by the very thing they fear. A demon, here, is not some esoteric figure originating from ancient folklore; in fact, when Machig Labdrön was asked by her son to define demons, she replied this way: “That which is called a demon is not some great black thing that petrifies whoever sees it. A demon is anything that obstructs the achievement of freedom.”
With that in mind, we can see how this ancient practice is still relevant today. Our habitual negative thoughts, feelings, and beliefs can all be classified as obstructions towards our freedom (demons) and learning how to work with them is a crucial component of our freedom from them. Step three of Feeding Your Demons asks one to feel their demon. Become it. A counterintuitive practice indeed, but one that seems to also be backed by science.
Joseph Wolpe was a psychologist and one of the most influential figures in behavior therapy. Wolpe developed a technique called systematic desensitization, a form of exposure therapy for the treatment of anxiety-related disorders and phobias, and his research shows how systematic desensitization is effective in not only reducing panic attacks, but anxiety itself.
Systematic desensitization involves exposure to the anxiety-producing stimulus at a low level until the anxiety is no longer present. A stronger stimulus is then given and the process is repeated. With time, the increasing exposure to the stimulus eventually rids oneself of its effects. One is forced to feel fully that which they have spent so much energy avoiding, and in doing so, creates the conditions to allow for its presence. I like to think of this process similar to that of going to the gym.
When starting a workout routine, we begin to lift weights that are light enough for us to work with, yet heavy enough to provide a challenge. Our muscles grow by being broken down, and in order for them to break down, there needs to be a load heavy enough to do that. At first, we might be able to lift thirty pounds of weight, but over time, with consistency, our muscles will grow and adapt to that load and eventually it will begin to feel light. At that point we can increase the weight to thirty-five pounds and the process repeats. Working with anxiety is the same. By deliberately exposing ourselves to that discomfort, we are developing the “muscle” or space to hold it. At some point, that anxiety that once felt heavy might begin to feel more manageable, lighter even. It’s not realistic to think we can fully eliminate the normal and healthy anxiety that comes with being human, but with practice, we can create enough space for it so that when it does show up, we can carry that load without feeling overwhelmed by it.
3. Remove Yourself
Many of us walk around in a sort of sleepwalking state, oblivious to the suffering we are in. Much of that suffering, and our anxiety, comes from regrets of the past or concerns for the future. Cultivating present-moment awareness is critical to seeing reality as it is. Without labels, stories, or attachments.
In Buddhism, the Sattipatana Sutta (also known as the Foundations of Mindfulness), encourages us to be mindful of body, feelings, mind, and of dhammas (or phenomena). The focus for this type of practice is observing both our internal and external experiences, whatever they may be. Being aware of what is happening, moment to moment, without judgment, expectation, or added commentary.
You don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice this. There’s nothing esoteric or complicated about it. In fact, the practice of what’s known as “secular mindfulness” has always combined classical Buddhist teachings with modern psychological theory.
Mindfulness as a therapy provides many benefits toward one’s overall well-being and has been shown to reduce anxiety. Mindfulness is simply the ability to be aware of the present moment. Taking a pause to check in with yourself, multiple times a day, is all it takes to cultivate your mindfulness practice. With time, your ability to stay present will strengthen and you will find yourself more frequently aware of your current state.
Buddhists and mindfulness practitioners aren’t the only ones to realize the effectiveness of creating distance from one’s experiences.
Pierre Hadot was a French philosopher and historian of philosophy, known for his translations of, and commentaries on, Roman Emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius. In his book Philosophy As A Way of Life, Hadot writes: “The exercise of wisdom entails a cosmic dimension. Whereas the average person has lost touch with the world, and does not see the world qua world, but rather treats the world as a means of satisfying his desires, the sage never ceases to have the whole constantly present to mind. He thinks and acts within a cosmic perspective. He has the feeling of a whole which goes beyond the limits of his individuality.” (Emphasis mine).
This idea of having the whole constantly present and the ability to think and act within a cosmic perspective is a fantastic component to mindfulness practice. To view oneself from a higher standpoint creates the space needed to see things clearly, especially during times of distress.
Marcus Aurelius adds to this idea in Meditations 5:24: “Think of substance in its entirety, of which you have the smallest of shares; and of time in its entirety, of which a brief and momentary span has been assigned to you; and of the works of destiny, and how very small is your part in them.”
When anxiety shows up, it can become overwhelming and easy to feel like we are our anxiety. When we detach from our experiences and take a wider view, we give ourselves enough space to see that we are indeed separate from them.
Our natural instinct is to suppress these challenging experiences, but doing so can only further escalate our problems. Emotional suppression has been linked to adverse health effects. A big reason why we get stuck isn’t necessarily uncomfortable feelings themselves, but our belief that they are real, which causes us distress. But the paradox remains: by embracing difficult emotions, one becomes more capable of tolerating them. Our avoidance perpetuates while our acceptance diminishes.
Albert Einstein once said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” When anxiety strikes and your thoughts start to run wild, it’s very hard to think or reason your way through those anxious thoughts.
Using these techniques will help you cultivate the framework necessary to work with your anxiety and difficult experiences. But keep in mind that knowledge alone isn’t enough if not put into practice. It’s more effective to be proactive rather than reactive. Prevention is better than cure. By adapting these techniques into everyday life—not just when anxiety strikes— you’ll be better equipped to appreciate and navigate life’s challenges.
Please note that clinical anxiety is a medical condition. This article is not intended to provide or replace treatment options for those who may suffer from anxiety or other forms of mental illness.
If you are in need of help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to access free, 24/7 confidential service for people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them. The Lifeline provides support, information, and local resources. You can also text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 for free 24/7 support with a trained crisis counselor right away.
For related readings, view our archive of Buddhist perspectives on mental health.