Healing anxiety (and my own anxiety journey)

If you struggle with anxiety, I wrote today's letter for you. I’m going to share my personal anxiety story, how I experience anxiety today and five tips that I hope will serve you in your own journey.

The first time I became aware of anxiety

The first time I remember feelings of anxiety becoming very obvious in my life was during my first year of university.

In that first year I lived in a halls of residence at the bottom of what was affectionately known as ‘Cardiac Hill’. As the name implies, Cardiac Hill was a (very) steep path that led to the main campus where all my lectures took place.

Walking up the hill with friends wasn’t so bad but when I had to go alone, I remember being overwhelmed by a feeling that everyone walking behind me was watching me, making judgements and laughing at this girl in front of them. My heart would start to race, my palms would get sweaty, I didn’t feel as if I could breathe properly and sometimes I felt like I might pass out.

The same thing happened when I had to walk into the canteen alone at lunch or dinner. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to locate my friends in the sea of people and that I’d have to sit alone, feeling intensely awkward, always with that feeling that everyone was watching and commenting.

Arriving alone in our halls of residence bar to meet friends was perhaps the worst. Walking through those doors, seeing my friends on the other side of the room and walking that short distance over to them was excruciating. Always this feeling of inferiority, stupidity, awkwardness and that I didn’t have a place here - here in this bar or here in this world.

There was also a constant anxiety about how well I’d perform academically.

Anxiety at work

It wasn’t until I got my first job in London, working as a team assistant at a financial secondaries company, that I went to the doctors with anxiety.

I lived under a constant weight of feeling that I was going to be called out as the useless fraud I was sure I was. Every time I had a meeting with my manager or a review with the HR team, I became anxious that they were going to tell me that I’d done something terrible and had to leave.

The doctor set me up with six sessions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I don’t remember much about those sessions except being on the underground on my way to work and counting how many things of a particular colour I could see, which was one of the exercises they suggested.

Whether I wasn’t ready or the approach wasn’t right for me, nothing changed and I carried on as I always had.

Opening up to the worlds of personal and spiritual growth

When I eventually left the corporate world looking for answers to my questions about what I was really meant to do in life, I started exploring more deeply the worlds of personal and spiritual growth. Several years later, I’d learned a lot but over and over again seemed to come up against the same wall. These cycles of anxiety, depression and self-doubt would come back around and I’d find myself in yet another meltdown.

It didn’t matter how often people praised me or how much I achieved, I never seemed able to see my own goodness or what I had going for me.

The beginning of radical change

It wasn’t until 2016, just after I returned to my hometown in the North West of England, that things began to radically change.

Coming back to my hometown brought up some old emotional wounds. I knew I was facing a choice: run away to a different country or stay and face what was coming up. And in the end, it wasn’t really a choice. I knew I wanted inner freedom and that made the choice for me.

I was certain that the answers I sought were spiritual and turned to the website Liberation Unleashed, which had been previously recommended by a friend.

It was through that website that I saw, beyond any doubt, that who I truly was wasn’t a separate entity, all alone in the world, but one with everything and everyone around me. This wasn't an intellectual experience. It was a full heart experience.

An important part of awakening is about seeing and experiencing for ourselves who we are before all our ideas about who we are. Who we are before beliefs and concepts. It’s experiencing ourselves as the peaceful and infinite space into which all thoughts and feelings come and go.

The realisation I experienced led me to a period of profound peace. Everything that had been troublesome in life completely dissolved, including anxiety.

But this was just the beginning. A few weeks later, the things I thought had gone started to return, yet even though they returned, something fundamental had changed. There was a knowing inside that couldn’t ever be taken away about who I truly was.

After that initial awakening the universe conspired, through a story of beautiful synchronicity, to hook me up with a Buddhist who would help me go deeper over the next couple of years. Since then, my journey has been one of continuous unfolding - sometimes feeling easy and effortless, sometimes with great challenge. The spiritual path isn't always pretty.

My experience of anxiety today

The experience I have of anxiety today is very different to how it was when I was at university. Perhaps the most significant thing is that I don't feel like an outcast in the world anymore.

As we wake up to our oneness and who we really are, there’s a natural knowing that we're perfect, whole, welcome and loved. This has been life-changing for me. With that knowing, I don’t walk around feeling intensely anxious about what people might be thinking or feeling about me.

With that said, familiar sensations of anxiety do arise from time to time. I might wake up and notice that my breath is shallow. Or perhaps I’m working and realise that my heart rate has risen and I feel tense. Or perhaps I find myself in a situation that triggers some old insecurity.

The difference is that these things don’t feel like a problem in the way they once did. The knowing of who I am beneath anything that’s happening on the surface never goes away, although it might be temporarily covered over.

Whether it’s for myself or working with clients, these are five ways I ‘work with anxiety’. I hope they serve you, too.

1. Try not calling it 'my anxiety'

I’ll always suggest not to refer to anxiety as ‘my anxiety’. This way of framing it brings you into closer identification with those feelings so that there’s no gap between the sensations and who you are. The spiritual path shows us that we're not these sensations that arise in the body but the space into which they come and go.

Instead, you can say something like, ‘feelings of anxiety are arising’. There’s so much more space in something like that.

This is something you can easily try for yourself and see if it starts to make a difference in your experience.

2. Try not calling it anxiety at all

A step further would be to drop the label ‘anxiety’ all together. Whilst labels and words help us navigate the world, sometimes it can be helpful to drop them, at least for a while.

Instead of talking about anxiety, try looking at the specific sensations you feel in the body. Is there heat or cold? Is there tightness anywhere? Are your palms sweaty? What’s your breath like?

Anxiety in itself is not a solid ‘thing’, it’s a word we give to a collection of sensations. Personally speaking, the more I talk about 'anxiety', the more it becomes a ‘thing’ in my mind and something I need to do something about. A sensation, or collection of sensations, is very different.

3. Meet anxiety instead of trying to get rid of it

That which we push against only grows stronger. What we resist, persists. There’s nothing wrong with these sensations that are arising, although they may feel intense or overwhelming.

Instead, see if you can come closer to your experience. See if you can become very intimate with it, as if it were the most fascinating thing in the world to you. Curiosity is so healing. This may take some courage. Look at what’s going on in your body. Welcome it in. Don’t make it into the enemy. Be loving the way you would with a friend who needed space to talk.

4. Come out of mind-made stories and rest in the Now

Most of our suffering doesn’t come from what’s happening but the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening.

Instead of experiencing the moment-by-moment sensations in the body, we tell ourselves stories about what those sensations mean. We might tell ourselves a story about how we’ll never get past anxiety or beat ourselves up because we haven’t figured out how to get rid of it yet. We might tell ourselves that we haven’t worked hard enough or that we can’t have really awakened or become more conscious if this is ‘still’ happening.

You can discover the way your mind makes these stories for yourself, simply by observing the mind in the moment and noticing the stories it’s spinning.

Our way out is to be here, now. Come out of those stories and rest in the moment, noticing what’s going on but not confusing what’s happening with who you are.

5. Allow it to be your teacher

One of the real gifts of the spiritual path is the way it helps us see the things that happen in our lives as opportunities for deeper peace and greater inner freedom.

When we’re not busy trying to get rid of anxiety or running away from it, we might find that it’s a portal for us to awaken more deeply, calling us into the here and now and showing us how we can discover a sense of peace, even in this.

Ultimately, that’a always the invitation; to meet our experience so fully that the very thing we wanted to get rid of becomes the pathway to a more open heart.

Love and courage,