The Story of Anxiety
“What makes us suffer is the way we think about what’s happening.”
Pema Chodron, No Time to Lose
As noted in the previous post, anxiety causes suffering and is also an important psychological adaptation. We all experience anxiety.
But we don’t all experience it the same way or for the same reasons.
The pandemic serves as a perfect example.
Some of us tune into the news, see the number of new cases, and feel anxiety ranging from extreme to enough anxiety that we stay home as much as possible and consistently wear masks wherever we go. The thought of schools reopening might cause stomach distress, sweaty palms, and extreme physical discomfort.
Some of us look at the exact same data and live our lives as normal, not wearing a mask unless required by law, getting those haircuts, going to bars, and eating at restaurants.
We can all be looking at the same information but react differently because we create different stories.
We’re no different from our early ancestors who heard the rustling in the bushes and created a story that determined the next step. That’s a lion! Or that’s a bunny. Sometimes, it was a lion, and our ancestor was smart to go with that story. Sometimes, it was only a bunny, and our ancestor caused himself unnecessary panic. Anxiety is an adaptation because lion stories meant survival of the species. Better to be wrong about bunnies and never wrong about lions.
It doesn’t have be anything as drastic as a pandemic or a lion though. Each of us has something that makes us anxious that might not make sense to anyone else. I was once in a small yoga class where a student asked before we started that everyone line up their yoga mats because the random placement of the mats was making her anxious. I hadn’t even noticed. As for me, I’m grateful for the invention of GPS because the idea of getting lost makes me anxious. (Yes, I know; I get lost using GPS too. Anxiety doesn’t always make sense. See yoga mat example.)
There’s all the stuff that happens on a given day, and there’s the story about it that becomes our reality and has the possibility of making us happy or anxious or something in between.
Alison Wood Brooks is a Harvard business professor whose experiments on performance anxiety demonstrate this. The physiological symptoms of anxiety are very similar to those of excitement; if we choose to label the physical symptoms as excitement, we shift the narrative, and our working memory is no longer encumbered by anxiety. Rather, we are excited and ready to perform. Nothing has changed except for the explanation we offer ourselves.
Again, the First Noble Truth is that life contains suffering. The Five Remembrances Meditation deals with this: I am of the nature to get sick, grow old, and die. So is everyone whom I love. The only thing that truly belongs to me are my actions. We can’t escape these truths.
However, the Second Noble Truth reminds us that we can discover the cause of suffering. We can look behind the suffering and find its cause, the story we’re creating.
The Five Remembrances entered forcefully into my own life through my mother’s slowly progressive dementia. It was a dozen years from the time of seeing first signs of it to the time of her death. Because I thought of her as my lifelong best friend, my initial story around her dementia was incredible fear, loss, anger, and lack of acceptance. It hurt my relationship with her. I struggled being around her. I couldn’t accept who she was.
As she got worse, I was able to change my story. She was still high functioning at the time of her death, and every visit to her was the highlight of my day because I could enjoy her beautiful smile, her enthusiasm to see me, and her genuine expression of pure love.
When she asked me the same question 10 times in an hour on first diagnosis, I wanted to pull my hair out. When she asked me the same question 20 times in an hour after she got worse, it didn’t bother me at all. She was worse, but I’d changed my story.
It was painful to lose my mom, but I’m glad I stopped creating suffering for both of us and could appreciate her for who she was in the moment. I’d never felt closer to her than when she died last August.
Stories are powerful, including the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell others, and the ones we read.
Jane Austen knew that.
So does Buddhism, which will be the subject of the next post
Photo Courtesy of Leona Wilde