You could say that anxiety and me have been going steady for quite some time. In fact, our relationship is by far my longest one to date. However, with nearly 40 million adults in the United States alone suffering with some form of anxiety disorder, I’m aware that our arrangement isn’t quite a monogamous affair.
And to be frank, it’s not necessarily a relationship I’ve wanted. Until recently, I spent many years trying to find ways to push down or "eliminate" my anxiety. I was unwilling to create a place for panic, worry or even sadness, within my psyche. After all, I was raised to be strong. And so, I was certainly too strong for these unwanted emotions. And yet, there they were humming in the background of every life experience, big or small. My failure to just "get over it" was infuriating. "What is wrong with me?" is a question I would ponder obsessively.
However, things eventually came to a head for me — in the form of crippling panic attacks. Morning after morning I would wake, and without fail I would be met with heart palpitations, tears, numb hands and a loss of breath. It felt a lot like I was dying, and at first, I thought I was. These moments were not only terrifying, but also debilitating. I didn’t understand, "Why is this happening to me?" is all I could think.
I hoped that just maybe Chödrön’s words would magically alleviate all that I was feeling.
Feeling utterly lost, I purchased a book called When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by beloved spiritual author and Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, at the recommendation of a trusted source. I hoped that just maybe Chödrön’s words would magically alleviate all that I was feeling.
Spoiler alert: They did not. (But please, stay with me.)
At the onset of her book, Chödrön describes her efforts to review a series of unedited transcripts from talks she had given between 1987-1994 following a 12-month sabbatical. To this end, she wrote, "Gradually, as I read more, I began to see that in some way, no matter what subject I had chosen, what country I was in, or what year it was, I had taught endlessly about the same things: the great need for maitri (loving-kindness toward oneself) and developing from that the awakening of a fearlessly compassionate attitude toward our own pain and that of others. It seemed to me that the view behind every single talk was that we could step into unchartered territory and relax with the groundlessness of our situation."
"So, let me get this straight," I thought to myself. "I’m supposed to lean in to my anxiety?
"So, let me get this straight," I thought to myself. "I’m supposed to lean in to my anxiety? To relax with my racing heart and shortened breath? I thought the point was to become more grounded?...I must be missing something."
Despite my confusion (and mounting discomfort), I continued to immerse myself in Chödrön’s words. Taking my time I read slowly each day, allowing her teachings to truly sink in. And what did I find? That yes, settling into my pain was exactly what she was prescribing, after all. Through meditation and mindfulness she encouraged readers to "bring whatever we encounter to the path." Now to be clear, this doesn’t mean to metaphorically unpack our bags and take up residence in the deep dark parts of our minds, but rather, to let ourselves acknowledge the pain in whatever form it comes.
Chödrön challenged me to replace judgment with compassion, and to extend that compassion far beyond myself.
Chödrön challenged me to replace judgment with compassion, and to extend that compassion far beyond myself. It’s not always easy, and some days, the path can be pretty tough. "Feeling all the feels" so to speak, isn’t necessarily a task for the faint of heart. But truth be told, I now know that whether it’s panic, pain, anxiety or depression, one must be willing to acknowledge their emotions fully because at the end of the day, the only way out is through.