If there’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that I have an impressive ability to distract myself and “run” from the things I deem too difficult to feel. I’ve been working with a private student for a few weeks now who is struggling with intense anxiety and depression, and I’ve begun seeing this tendency in her as well. There’s this overwhelming desire to find anything and everything to take us out of our misery. Because when we slow down enough and get still enough, it feels like we can’t handle the intensity of the pain within us.
So in order to avoid feeling the pain in our bodies (which could be emotional pain, physical pain, shame, trauma, and so on), we might go off into obsessive worry about a future we can’t control. It almost feels safer for us to retreat into our minds, staying in this space of a virtual reality that isn’t actually occurring right now, than to drop into the body and FEEL what’s here.
Often, when I’m dealing with something difficult in my life, like the death of a family member, I’ll find myself escaping up into my mind and obsessing about some “what if” question that is fundamentally unanswerable. And since it’s unanswerable, there’s no end to how much I can worry about it. And even though it produces anxiety and it’s very uncomfortable, perhaps it’s more comfortable than feeling the grief or the uncertainty of life. Perhaps there’s the illusion of control when we worry, as if we can somehow protect ourselves against future suffering by being “prepared” for anything that might possibly come our way, no matter how small a chance.
So I’ve been practicing, over and over again, noticing when I get lost in thought and reminding myself to come back to what’s here. I ask myself, “What’s beneath this anxiety? How can I feel what’s here?”
And then I just sit. I place one hand on my heart and one hand on my belly, sending myself love and compassion through my own embrace, and I just feel. I feel the tightening in my chest and the burn in throat; the feeling of falling without knowing if anything will catch me; the feeling of utter vulnerability when I do decide to let go of worry.
Lately, when I’ve asked what’s underneath all of this anxiety, I’ve been finding a whole bunch of shame. Shame that is so, so old. Shame from childhood. Shame that was learned so long ago and has stuck with me ever since. Unworthiness and unlovability. And while I couldn’t handle that pain as a child, I can handle it now. I can meet this pain with a completely loving presence of my wise, powerful self. It’s not always easy and I don’t always know what I’m doing, but I have the intention to meet this with love.
So how do we work with what’s underneath the anxiety?
If there’s overwhelming pain, I highly recommend seeking out the help of a therapist or someone who can hold space for you while you feel. It can be so necessary sometimes to have someone else remind us that, even though it’s hard, we are strong enough to work with what’s already inside of us.
Then, find some form of expression that resonates with you in order move and process the energy. Maybe that means doing a deeply spiritual yoga practice. Maybe that means journaling with your higher self (my favorite way to work with pain). Maybe it means meditation. Maybe you dance or walk in nature or talk to your best friend or pray or cry.
The most important thing, for me, is to have a willingness to stay with what arises- a bravery and curiosity to explore. And it’s also helpful for me to remind myself that whatever pain comes up, it’s already been living in my body all these years. It can’t hurt me in new ways. I’ve already had this pain within me. Now I’m just giving it space to breathe and to move, instead of squashing it down and covering it over with anxiety.
And also realizing that sometimes, anxiety is just anxiety. Sometimes there’s nothing beneath the surface. Maybe we’re just having an off day. And that’s okay. Sometimes we don’t need to explore deeper, we just need to take care of ourselves until it passes. Either way, slowing down and tuning into our own hearts gives us the space and permission needed to heal.
I would love to hear some of the ways you work with exploring your emotions, as I’m always trying to find new ways to open to pain. Let me know in the comments below. Have a wonderful holiday season my lovely friends ❤