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The Secret to Handling Anxiety Skillfullyfrom: Guest Contributor - Kevin Schoeninger
Does anxiety sometimes overwhelm you, blocking you from feeling safe and secure, connecting deeply with others, and doing the things you've always wished you could do? In this post, you'll learn how to mindfully engage with your anxiety to grow stronger relationships, excel at work, and overcome fears that hold you back. You'll discover an important distinction that frees you from repeating emotional stories that drag you down and simple questions to tap into the emotional intelligence available underneath these stories.
A Lack of Emotional Intelligence
Let's be honest. We live in a culture that lacks emotionally intelligence. As a society, we are uncomfortable with emotions, in general, and intense or uncomfortable emotions such as anxiety, in particular. As a result, we repress our emotional experience and live mostly from our heads.
Here are some common symptoms of emotional repression described by Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson in their book "Meditation: An In-Depth Guide." (p.186)
• We tell ourselves we have to be strong and responsible, and cannot give in to our emotions.
• We keep ourselves so busy we do not have time to explore our emotions.
• We tell ourselves we do not want to be a burden on anyone so we cannot dwell on, or explore, our feelings.
• We fill up with food so we do not feel our emotions.
• We chill out on alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs so that we do not have to feel our emotions.
• We distract ourselves with television, movies, sports and other forms of entertainment so we do not have to feel our emotions.
• We tackle difficult situations with super-rationality and excessive thinking so we do not have to feel our emotions.
• We keep ourselves in our comfort zone and in control so we do not have to feel our emotions.
• We cry at movies or for others but are unwilling to feel empathy for ourselves.
Do you relate to any of these behaviors? You may even consider some of these to be admirable qualities. After all, most of them are encouraged in our culture. Yet, these behaviors cut you off from your felt experience and your emotional intelligence. They repress your emotional life and block you from the experiences you truly desire.
The Habit of Emotional Repression
Emotional repression is a defense mechanism that helps you survive intense experiences. It is a short-term coping mechanism. You use it to shove aside painful feelings and forget traumatic memories. It helps you shut down feelings that overwhelm you.
However, as a long-term strategy, emotional repression leads to emotional swings and outbursts or emotional numbness. The former makes you even more wary about delving deeper into your emotions. The later makes you think emotions are not all that important.
If you find yourself either lacking energy, motivation, clear direction, and purpose or subject to depression, anxiety, chronic tension, back or neck pain, migraines, digestive issues, or other chronic illness-emotional awareness leading to emotional healing is the path forward. As the saying goes, "the healing is in the feeling."
Let's begin on that path with an important distinction that trips up most of us. It's a mistake we all make-at least sometimes. As a culture, we make it, and even encourage it, pretty much as a rule. We confuse our emotions with the stories we tell about them-then we get stuck in the stories.
The Difference Between Emotion and Story
Let's say it's Wednesday morning. Getting out of your car and walking toward the front door of your work, you get a familiar sinking feeling. All-of-a-sudden, you feel tired and your stomach is a little queasy. You feel uneasy and unmotivated.
Immediately your mind tells a story about that.
"I didn't get enough sleep last night. That must be it. I have to get to bed sooner. But, I wanted to stay up and watch that show with my wife. It's our only time together at the end of the day. I don't want to give that up. If I just didn't have to get up so early...
You sit down at your desk and pull out the folder with the information for your first client. The feeling hits again. That wave of fatigue.
"If I can just get through this one, the rest of the day will be easier."
Then, you think about the presentation you have to do that night. You're dreading that. The wave of fatigue washes down through your whole body. You feel like you could lie down on the floor and go to sleep for hours.
The clock clicks to 8:00am. You shove your feelings aside and hunker down for a long day.
The above story was a familiar one for me. I repeated it countless days over the 36 years of my career as a teacher and trainer. Perhaps you have similar stories that you repeat day after day in your life?
Take a moment to recall any uncomfortable experiences that repeat again and again in your life...
Now, I want to highlight an important distinction-the distinction between emotion and your story about it. Emotion is a felt sensation in your body. It conveys information about how you are relating to your inner or outer world. The story is your mental interpretation of this emotion.
In my account above, I have a sinking feeling in my gut which is following by a wave of fatigue. I then tell myself a story about this.
I initially attribute my fatigue to lack of sleep. An easy, reasonable connection to make. Simple, acceptable story line: "I'm tired. I need more sleep."
The interesting thing is that more sleep isn't really the issue. I've discovered this over the years by the fact that I can feel this way even when I've gotten plenty of sleep.
So, I have this wave of fatigue that's not related to sleeping more. But, what could this be?
The History of Discomfort
When I sit with the feeling of fatigue and inquire more deeply, I discover that it leads me in a whole different direction. It points to an underlying emotional experience that I've had since I was young. It's one that is stored right in my solar plexus. And it rises up when I have to "put myself out there," especially verbally, live, and in-person.
So, when I am walking into work and I think of a client who challenges my knowledge, skills, expertise, and ability to communicate-I get a wave of fatigue and, sometimes, nausea.
Years ago, before I was aware of this-and was just reacting to it-I would create all kinds of stories about the fatigue and nausea that I felt. I would tell myself that I didn't like "where" I was working, "who" I was working with, or even the work I was doing itself. I told myself that I just wasn't cut out for it, that I should do something else. Following these story lines out, I tried many other things, but they just didn't solve the issue.
So, I just kept ploughing through this feeling. At one point in my career, cutting off from my feelings led me to book up to 12 clients a day-and just keep pushing through-feeling more and more tired. And, wishing longingly for that day when I could retire.
Then, at a certain point, I inquired into the feeling underneath the fatigue.
As I paid attention to the feeling in my gut, I realized the story I had been telling myself about needing more sleep wasn't actually true.
Underneath the fatigue was a deeper feeling: "I am afraid they won't get me. I am afraid that who I am and what I have to offer is not enough."
This feeling has a long history. Ever since I can remember, people have been saying to me "You're so quiet, what's wrong?" My relatives said it, my classmates said it, my teachers said it, and my co-workers said it. "You're so quiet."
Several years ago, before she died, my Mom sent me a book called "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" by Susan Cain. In this book was a test for introversion-and I scored about as high as you can get. The book goes on to extol the virtues of introverts, such as the ability to concentrate, write, meditate, be disciplined, dig deeply, and communicate intimately.
In reading this book, I began to understand what was underneath my nausea and fatigue. As I tracked the familiar feeling of fatigue, nausea, and collapsing in my solar plexus, it invariably related to social occasions in which I have to express myself outwardly, teach, perform, or otherwise convey what is "inside" to the "outside world."
I discovered that under my fatigue is anxiety, specifically related to wondering if people will understand, value, and connect with who I am and what I have to offer. Will they like and accept me as I am? That's a whole different issue than lack of sleep-with different solutions. Once I connected with the anxiety, it pointed me toward some strategies.
First, I don't overschedule myself with too many of these "extroverted" events. No more 12 clients/classes/presentations in a day. Second, I prepare well. I become clear in what I have to offer and let go of trying to be someone I'm not. Third, I breathe deeply and relax my body. And, finally, I focus on being present with the person or people I am with and tuning into them, taking the pressure and focus off of "me."
Sometimes, I still get anxious. But, I no longer shove my feelings aside and get overwhelmed with fatigue. I no longer overbook myself and just plough through. Instead, I stay present with what I am actually feeling and use good strategies that work with my personality.
As you experience anxious feelings in your life, take a moment to pause and ask: "What's the story I am telling myself about this situation? What is the emotion underneath this story?" Feel where this emotion is located in your body and experience it as a physical sensation. As best as you can, relax and breathe into this sensation. Then, ask yourself, "What is this emotion trying to tell me? What is it asking me to do?"
Kevin Schoeninger is a writer and teacher of Mind-Body training, including Mindfulness, Meditation, Qigong, and Reiki. He is the author of the book "Clear Quiet Mind" and numerous guided meditations and programs in the field of personal empowerment and spiritual growth.
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