RESPONDING TO AN ATTACK OF ANXIETY
Anxiety/nervousness is one of many moods. A mood is a state of mind, a dominant emotion, or a prevailing attitude (all three pretty much expressing the same idea). Moods can be both good and bad. The good moods are happiness, goodwill, and enjoyment. The bad moods are anxiety (fear), anger, guiltiness, shame, and despair. When we are under the sway of a bad mood, we feel that we have lost control of our own minds. We are no longer our own master.
If you are assailed by a bad mood, a goal has to be to promote a mood of self-protectiveness, friendliness, and consolation. You can promote it by taking steps.
The first thing to do is to take an empty place in the mind. Where is the mind empty? It speaks from an empty place when you say to yourself, "That thought/feeling/mood has emerged into consciousness." The place from which you speak is an empty place.
Bad moods persist because of a person's inflexibility. The person goes over and over memories of awful events - failures, disappointments, victimization, humiliations, and so on. This all goes on in the person's mind, which is detached from present concerns. By saying to yourself, "That thought/feeling/mood has emerged into consciousness," you establish yourself in present time. The distraction occurs now. The speaker speaks now.
There are other techniques for abandoning a bad mood. If you awaken in the middle of the night with an attack of anxiety, try panting/gasping, clenching the edges of the front teeth together and exhaling through your teeth. This is a form of breathing meditation, effective when you are attacked. If the attack does not dissipate, take other steps (amplified farther on):
Basic to taking leadership of oneself is turning toward instead of away, so that, instead of cowering before the authoritarian righteousness of shaming and blaming, you raise your head and look. You see that a part of your mind is nagging you with mean thoughts - you are unattractive, you are unpopular, you were wrong, you made a mistake, you failed, you are poor, you are low-class, you are uneducated, you are unintelligent, you are ignorant - in short, you are inferior. You can say to yourself, "I see my own mistreatment of myself. It is without compassion. I object!"
Bowlby notes that patients, such as Charles Darwin, who tend to hyperventilate "have a pronounced tendency to avoid referring to the event or to their having been distressed by it. Furthermore, they do not need to be consciously aware of having been reminded of the event for it to affect their breathing. This means that . . . the disturbing event or continuing situation responsible for the condition is likely to remain hidden. Findings of these sorts go far to explain occasions when the onset of symptoms occurs for no obvious reason, as often happens - for example while reading a newspaper or watching TV." (Ibid., 10) This is to say that we sometimes separate ourselves from our bad feelings by turning away from them. This is the opposite of self-knowledge.
Some words, for example, are so closely associated with fear, shame, hostility, and guiltiness that they evoke an avoidance reaction in themselves. A person who has been called a sissy or a faggot, for example, can feel so ashamed of this name that he or she has a tendency to look askance at it, if at all. Similarly, vulgar language causes some people to stop up their ears, and their dread of using vulgar language themselves is so great that they would "die of embarrassment" if they should utter it.
To be a whole person again, you can move away from ignoring or repudiating your bad feelings and move into a position of being receptive to change. From this position you are compassionate - you recognize that you are more than your bad feelings. Implicit in this attitude lie the words, "I am with you. I do not turn away from you. I acknowledge you. I recognize your bad feelings. My compassion recognizes that you are more than you think you are. Who you are and who you have been have been produced by the processes of Nature/life. I do not repudiate or desert any of you. I do not turn my back on you. I do not try to will you out of existence. I acknowledge your existence, each part of your body and each part of your mind. A person is going to feel the full range of human feelings, including fear, shame, hostility, and guiltiness. A person cannot be human without experiencing them. Therefore, I face my negative thoughts. We live together."
Your talk to yourself is like a holy person's addressing a leper: "I see your sores and crippling, but I am not repelled. I do not flee from you. Rather, I attend to you, knowing that the nobility of humanity is in you, just as it is in every other man and woman."
Facing your interior life, say in your mind, "Your mind is attacking you. Face what is happening. Your bad feelings are in you, a part of you. Acknowledge them." (See Gunaratana for more on this: Gunaratana Chapter 12.)
In this way you take the part neither of the shamer and blamer nor of the one feeling shame and blame but rather a third part, a person receptive to change. You place yourself in a position of seeing that you are hurting and being hurt.
By facing, you see what is really there. Compassionate toward yourself, you allow whatever you feel ashamed or guilty of to be there. You accept the fact that you have negative thoughts. They are part of the processes of Nature/life and part of your experience. You don't deny them. You are a realist.
An important part of facing is naming what one faces. Instead of facing some vague feeling of self-dissatisfaction, pin down, if you can, what you are feeling, your specific fear, shame, hostility, or guiltiness. See what you are feeling and name it, such as, for example, anxiety, rejection, disappointment, shame, defeated, fear, hostility, or guiltiness. . Face your fear of family arguments. Face your fear of being unwanted. Face your hostility toward your boss. Face your guiltiness for having been angry toward your child. By specifically naming what you are feeling, you gain a foothold for facing it further. Each time it occurs, call it by name: ""You are feeling defeated, you are feeling defeated, you are feeling defeated . . ."
A list of bad feelings can suggest that these bad feelings are not so horrible that they must be denied. Rather, they can be observed, as a scientist would observe them. You are then a realist. All of us are chock full of emotions, all of them allowable. They are in Nature/life.
wounded. . . .by betrayal
burning. . . .with shame
gnawing feeling. . . .worrying
cold. . . .with fear
hot. . . .with anger
burdened. . . .with guilt
aching. . . .with remorse
stabbed in the back. . . . betrayed
Naming what one feels is not always possible. When a person is outside any protective social group, he or she is in a dangerous position. It is the same position that an outcast from a tribe is in - the person is vulnerable to wild animals, unfriendly tribes, and the elements. In such a position, not only are you afraid, but you have been rejected and thus feel ashamed, since the very nature of shame is the experience of being excluded. In such a vulnerable position you are assaulted by a multitude of fears. Almost any danger assumes exaggerated proportions. In this case, it is difficult to name each fear and each feeling of shame, since there are so many. However, you can at least recognize your vulnerability and acknowledge that you are experiencing the tortures of a powerless outsider. In such a case of confusion, you can say: "You are attacking yourself. You are obsessing. You are feeling vulnerable and not capable" or "You are experiencing yourself subjectively. You are feeling self-conscious" or "I feel you stewing, I hear you stewing."
Speaking to oneself in this way is recognition that there are other resources in one's mind. The mind entertains the possibility that there is more to a person than his or her panic and despair.
A person who suffers from general depression should not hesitate to say to himself or herself, "So much bad feeling. So much bad feeling. So much bad feeling. . ." or, addressing the bad feeling, "Who are you, and what is your purpose?" In this case, the person doing the talking is not identical with the person who is depressed. The self-talk sets up a subjective-objective situation - you separate "I" (subject) from the depression (object). Thus, we can be conscious of what our minds are doing - we can be conscious of consciousness.
Similarly, saying "I don't know what to do next, but my body knows. My body is a genius" repeatedly enlists the services of the person's inner nature/life. Consciously, we might not know what to do, but it is possible that deeper in one's nature/life there are answers.
The body knows a great deal. Physically, we can see it all the time. For example, when a person suffers a burn, healing agents travel to the site and begin the repair process. Skin cells divide to make new skin, which encircles the burn. Little by little, the healing agents coordinate their work to make the injury smaller and smaller, until, finally, the injury disappears, and the skin is totally repaired. Mentally, also, the body knows a great deal. When we are in despair, not knowing how to handle our problems, we can say to ourselves, "I don't know what to do next, but my body knows. My body is a genius." Addressing our own pools of originations, our life, we can say, "My bones are soaked in fear, shame, hostility, and guiltiness. I'm in a pickle. Please help me out."
You can face your painful memories. You can face your nightmares. You can rise above the person you think you are. You can face the part of your body that has been injured or shamed. You can face the bad relationship you have with it. You can acknowledge your shame of its victimization, pain, and weakness. If you feel bad about it, you can say, "You are feeling ashamed, you are feeling ashamed, you are feeling ashamed, . . ."
When a person is receptive to change, he or she is a learner. You look to yourself to discover who you are and to discover life itself, lifting your sight above the negative thoughts, which for now you can determine to live with.
Implicit in this learning attitude are the words, "I know there is more to learn. I persist. I keep looking to the expressions of human nature/life in myself, regardless of their unfriendliness. I marvel at the processes of Nature/life occurring in myself. I marvel at my complexity. I cannot know all of it, but I can know more of it. Even my most negative thoughts are expressions of the processes of Nature/life.
"I know that within you there are reserves of self-compassion, self-forgiveness, and self-mercy. I do not reject you. I look beyond your negative thoughts to what may be hidden but is never lost: love, kindness, generosity, fairness, and minute-by-minute creativity. Even though you choke up when you speak, I find you interesting. Though you are ignorant, I believe in you. Though you are stupid, I respect you. Though you are wrong, I want you. Though you pretend to be what you are not, I recognize your creative nature/life. You are a history, ideas, values, feelings, and intentions. You are okay."
One would think that a person wouldn't have to work so hard at righting one's own wrongs against himself or herself. One would think that the self-defender would come charging forth at every threat to self-respect. However, this is not the case. In the words of Erasmus, "Man's mind is so formed that it is far more susceptible to falsehood than to truth." In people that feel vulnerable, harsh judgments against oneself seem to be strong and kindly judgments weak. The reason for this is that kindliness is not naturally triumphant. It has to be achieved. The mind entertains harsh judgments just as readily as kindly ones. To people that feel vulnerable, harsh judgments seem to be superior to kindly ones. Cowering before the seeming superiority of the judge, you feel that you have no right to self-compassion, self-mercy, and self-forgiveness. A necessary condition, therefore, for overcoming negative thoughts is entertaining the possibility that you do, after all, deserve good treatment from yourself. A person can say, "Every human being deserves to live in the present creatively without the obstruction of shame and guiltiness. I take a position in opposition to the shame and guiltiness that stand in the way of my enjoyment of the present. I persist in asserting my values of self-compassion, self-mercy, and self-forgiveness. I am okay. The event is past, and all that remains of it is a reflection in the mind. It is a delusion that the event is real, still occurring."
The power of shaming and blaming is too strong for just a single mention. Instead of naming one's feeling just once, you need to hold onto your position by repeatedly saying what you are feeling, until the power of bad feelings diminishes. For example, if you are feeling guilty, say, "You are feeling guilty, you are feeling guilty, you are feeling guilty, . . ." repeatedly until your bad feeling dissipates. It is remarkable that this technique is so effective. By your being open to change, the power of the judge is weakened.
Recently, instead of carefully reading the directions for installing software in a computer, I was too hasty and used up a lot of extra time needlessly. On the way home, I realized that I was kicking myself for being too hasty. I said to myself, "You are kicking yourself for being too hasty, you are kicking yourself for being too hasty, you are kicking yourself for being too hasty, . . ." repeatedly. Before long, the bad feeling dissipated, and my mind dwelt upon other matters.
The judge does not relinquish its power unless you persist. Repeatedly it calls you names, criticizes, and compares you unfavorably with other people. As you make an effort to take an opposing position, you find yourself on a slippery surface, where it is all too easy to slide back into self-name-calling, self-criticism, and uncomplimentary comparisons with other people. It is easy for your opposing thoughts to fade away. Since the negative thoughts are persistent, you, too, must be persistent. The mind moves swiftly. Thoughts change in an instant. Similarly, thoughts of fear, shame, hostility, or guiltiness pass through the mind almost instantaneously. If you do not take the presence of a bad feeling as an opportunity to object, the bad feeling can linger and spoil the occasion. Feeling vulnerable can quickly dominate consciousness. Consequently, in the presence of a bad feeling, taking a position must be asserted almost moment by moment if self-doubt is not to take over. We have a right to take a stand in our own behalf, to be intolerant of our own self-harassment. The statement "That thought/feeling/mood has emerged into consciousness" must be asserted with persistence by saying it repeatedly. In time, this position gains strength, and negative thoughts recede. Not to be forgotten is just observing/noticing a bad feeling objectively, as a feature of existence. What is it? How strong is it? How long does it last? Gunaratana explains this technique very well:Gunaratana Chapter 12.
In repeating a statement/observation, keep track on your fingers:
[1st time that a statement is uttered in the mind] - think of left hand little finger
[2nd time] - think of left hand ring finger
[3rd time] - think of left hand middle finger
[4th] - think of left hand index finger
[5th] - think of left hand thumb
[6th] - think of right hand little finger
[7th] - think of right hand ring finger
[8th] - think of right hand middle finger
[9th] - think of right hand index finger
[10th] - think of right hand thumb
The statement is not shouted or forced. Rather, it is just said. You establish a platform in your mind that is distinct from the negative thought.
You can coordinate the statements with breathing - 1st utterance of the statement, 1st breath, 2nd utterance of the statement, 2nd breath, and so on.
When negative thoughts have full sway over the person, they freeze the mind so that the person feels no freedom to move into another position. Guiltiness feels lumpy and heavy, with tendrils that clutch, so that the person can hardly breathe. Sometimes I have awakened in the middle of the night in the clutch of guiltiness. My eyes pop open, and I feel the terrible blackness of guiltiness. My mind seems to be locked on some terrible memory. In such instances, I have said to myself in my mind, "Who are you, and what is your purpose?" repeatedly.
Then I have seen that the judge in me, the merciless Puritan, so rigid, relentless, and unforgiving, was convicting me. By using self-talk, I took a stance in a part of my mind apart from the victim of self-blame. I stopped being a victim and took a different part. I saw that my actually being guilty is permanent, but my feeling guilty - blamed and unforgiven - doesn't have to be permanent.
Like guiltiness, the feeling of shame can also seem to be overwhelming. If in one's life there has been a terrible abasement, the mind produces images of being stepped on and dirty. Sexual abasement, in particular, causes a person to feel dirty. Because of the physical violation, the person comes to see himself or herself as a dirty person. The dirtiness becomes a part of the person's view of himself or herself.
This, too, can be resisted: "You are feeling vulnerable because your boundary was crossed. You are feeling vulnerable because your boundary was crossed. You are feeling vulnerable because your boundary was crossed . . ." and, then, addressing the bad feeling, "Who are you, and what is your purpose."
Working inside one's mind is fascinating work, since it is a way of learning more about oneself and about life. Although it is difficult and sometimes unsettling, it is never dull, and, enlarging as it does one's understanding of self and of life, it has value beyond the overcoming of anxiety. (See Gunaratana regarding the benefits of meditation: Gunaratana Chapter 16.)
Step 3 is a procedure to relax the body. Start with the toes. Touch (or pull on) each little toe in turn, then each fourth toe, and so on. Touch each pair of fingers - each little finger in turn, each fourth finger, and so on. Touch on each side of the center line of your skull, starting with the back of your neck and proceeding to your crown and down to your eyes. Touch each closed eye and each nostril and both sides of your lips. In time, these steps can be taken just in the mind.
Next come the bones. Imagine that you are touching various bones with a hammer - cheek bones one side and then the other, forehead, nose, shoulders, hip bones, elbows, knees, ankle bones, and soles of the feet. Feel the cold metal of the hammer in your imagination.
Next, imagine that you are holding your heart. Imagine that you are touching your alimentary canal from top to bottom. Imagine that your head is resting in the palms of your hands and that you are gently lifting it up and down.
Step 4 is looking for a friendly image or color. In a looking state of mind, thoughts and images bubble up into consciousness from some mysterious realm inside the mind (as they do, actually, in all states of mind). They come to mind as a meaningful whole, not just syllable by syllable or picture by picture.
When you want to fall asleep, you can recognize the pathway coming from the deep realm of your existence up to consciousness. Recognizing this pathway is similar to saying to yourself, "I am in Nature/life, not apart from it. I am the creature of what is going on inside my mind. My ego investment is excessive. Everything was (and is and will be) inevitable."
Imagine that there is a blank screen a few inches in front of your closed eyes. Wait for a friendly image or color (maybe deep iridescent blue or ice green) to appear on the screen, saying to yourself, "I look for dream images or a color. I sleep. I dream," over and over again.
Odd images and thoughts often appear. If they are unfriendly, move away from them and return to looking at the blank screen. Continue to look. Since you are trying to go to sleep, when images or a color appear on the screen, they will turn into dreams.
When a person suddenly wakes up, his or her mind is saying, "You are in danger. You'd better wake up to defend yourself." When you are awake, you are less vulnerable than when you are asleep.
Insomnia is caused either by memories of events that haven't been fully consigned to the past or else by aloneness.
In the first instance (memories of events that haven't been fully consigned to the past), something awful has happened, and the mind wants somehow to undo it. It keeps you awake while you go over the unfortunate episode again and again. However, the episode, now in the past, is irreversible. Whether you were in the right or in the wrong, it is a fact. Only the feelings connected with it are reversible.
Not only are the awful feelings alive, but, in addition, there is confusion - there is a tumbling or churning or flashing in the mind. There seems to be no place to land. Insomniacs have lost faith in the safety of existence. The terror, horror, and disgust that underlie everyday existence are immediately under their noses.
If something is expected of you, or you expect something of yourself, and you lie awake wondering what you should do, it is a good idea to develop a plan in your mind. Recently, I was on an airplane, and I sat on my Kindle and broke it. What should I do? Should I lie to Amazon Customer Service and hide the fact that I had sat on it? Or should I tell the truth and hope for clemency. Then I took the part of a Dutch uncle and had a talk with myself. (I call the philosopher in me Robert and the wayward mistake-maker Bob.) Playing the part of Robert, I said, "Bob, you need a plan." This was my plan: (1) Call Customer Service and tell the truth. (2) Ask if it is covered by the warranty. (3) Ask if it can be repaired. (4) If it can't, and it is not covered by the warranty, pay for a new one. (5) Stop worrying. You can't undo what has happened. With a plan I felt better.
In the second instance (aloneness), the person is outside the pale, where wild animals roam and unfriendly tribes lurk, and there is no tribe of your own to offer comfort. The anxiety is the anxiety of the outsider.
The basic mood underlying insomnia is fear. If you believe that you are connected (through telepathy, prayer, participation in a "ground of all being," or some other delusion), you are vulnerable. This delusion has to be rejected if you want to recover a feeling of safety. If you awaken in the middle of the night, recognize that you are fearful. Then, bring to mind an antidote: "You are feeling vulnerable. Actually, you are separate. You are safe. . . . You are separate. You are safe. . . . You . . . (continue)."
In general, as an approach to understanding yourself, 1) notice whatever feelings of memories are bothering you. Say the relevant word over and over again: You are feeling anger, . . . You are feeling shame, . . . You are feeling fear,. . ., etc. If you aren't sure what it was that awakened you, make a stab at it: you are feeling horror, terror, pain, loneliness, disgust, a breach, you are feeling horror, terror, pain, loneliness, disgust, a breach, You are feeling horror, terror, pain . . . If, after this exercise, the feeling does not go away, say the words, "That thought/feeling/mood has emerged into consciousness." If the mind is still tumbling or churning or flashing, say the words, "Your mind is tumbling (or churning or flashing) . . ." repeatedly until it diminishes. As an alternative, you can ask yourself, "What is my consciousness doing?" (2) Evoke one or more of the values: self-love, self-kindness, self-compassion, self-mercy, and self-forgiveness. (3) Turn over the governance of yourself to your body and mind. Withdraw all effort. Say, "I am totally created by Nature. I want my egotism (self-importance/trying to hold my image together) to collapse. I don't know what to do next, but my body does. My body is a genius. I don't know what to do next, but my mind does. My mind is a genius." (4) Then, use the touching exercise. (5) Finally, look for pleasant dream images by saying, "I look for pleasant dream images. I sleep. I dream" over and over again in the mind.Here is another sequence.
First, turn on your side, cross your legs, and dangle your legs over the side of the bed. Little by little, your anxiety subsides.It is not easy to get back to normal life after an anxiety attack. Living in the present is a delicate thing, so, when a person is lambasted by fear, shame, anger, or guiltiness, normal life disappears. It is only hope for a better life that gets us to take measures to overcome an attack.
Second, repeat a saying to yourself ten times or more, such as, "You are separate, you are safe. . . You are separate, you are safe. . . (etc.)."
Third, if you are still wakeful, get up, warm up a cup of milk in the microwave, add some Malted Milk or Ovaltine, and drink it.
Fourth, if you are still wakeful, engage in walking meditation for twenty minutes.
Fifth, lie on your back in bed, touch the fingertips of one hand to the fingertips of the other hand, and slowly move them up and down over your body, pivoting on your elbows. Sixty of these up-downs seem to be about right.
Sixth, cover your head with the bed covers.
Seventh, say repeatedly to yourself, "I look for dream images. I sleep. I dream," all the while imagining a screen a few inches in front of your eyes onto which images can play.
Randomness of thoughts such as occur in dreams seems to be a characteristic of being human. All kinds of odd, unexpected thoughts and feelings occur all the time during both waking and sleeping life. We ask ourselves, "Where did THAT come from?"
It is quite possible that randomness is part and parcel of the natural creativity of human beings. We couldn't be creative without the randomness. Nature/life releases random thoughts and feelings into consciousness whether they are useful or not and whether they are likeable or not. Some will be useful and/or likeable and some will not. It seems that we wouldn't have the useful and likeable ones if we didn't also have the other, unwanted ones. Albert Einstein wrote about his own experience, "I think and think for months, for years; 99 times the conclusion is wrong, but the hundredth it is right." Linus Pauling said something similar: "Well, you just have lots of ideas and throw away the bad ones. You aren't going to have good ideas unless you have lots of ideas and some principle of selection." Dreams, then, can be seen as expressions of the natural creativity of being human.Given the randomness of our thinking, we have no choice but to use our own judgment in separating the ones that we want to act on from the ones that we want to drop.