3 Spiritual Practices for Anxiety-Packed Moments
These basic facts about the brain leave out a crucial point: Although every dimension of anxiety causes some region of the brain to "light up," you are the ultimate controller of your responses. In the connection between mind, body and spirit, much of the anxiety response is open to change—once you understand how. The first principle is that the spirit offers the deepest level of control over anxiety and stress. There is a level of the mind that transcends the ups and downs of daily life, which is the place you need to reach through meditation. Once you've become accustomed to locating your spiritual core and utilizing the peace and stillness it provides, you will find anxiety-packed moments much diminished in their effect.
But most people want to know how to deal with anxiety right this minute. There are three things I do personally, but they can be treated as one technique. They are not new or revolutionary, but they do work in the short-term: Take several deep breaths. Center yourself until the edge of anxiety starts to soften. If you have tried these two things and still feel anxious, walk away from the stressful situation as soon as you can.
But as I said, this is a short-term practice and difficult to pull off if you haven't begun the long-term work that makes it so much easier and more effective. That long-term work is not just meditation or yoga. In fact, the second practice for dealing with anxiety is thinking about stress when you least want to—when everything is going right. (Sometime, when you are not under any pressure, stand back and take a look at how your choices—and not the choices or demands of other people—leave you trapped in stressful moments.
For some, it's a matter of what they see as their duty, or showing how macho they are or not looking vulnerable. I understand where these motivations come from. But if you sit quietly and consider how high your anxiety level is throughout a typical day, you can predict the encounters that will push your anxiety buttons. By this I mean: How often are you around stressful co-workers? How often do you throw yourself into a stressful situation without knowing how to handle it? How often do you feel duty-bound to take care of others?
If you are as kind to yourself as you are to others, you will seriously examine the damage you are doing to your inner life by welcoming needless stress. For women, in particular, anxiety is often associated with a positive spiritual trait: empathy. By wanting to feel what another person is feeling, many women learn early on that they will pay the price for feeling anxious, and it's a price they are willing to pay. In many families, children learn early on that it's Mommy you run to when you are crying, not Daddy. In return for being the emotional heart of the family, a role many wives and mothers value, too much of the burden of worry comes with it.
This leads to my third practice for anxious moments, which is to find detachment while still offering empathy. In my medical practice, especially early on, when many of the nursing staff were veterans of World War II or the Korean War, I observed that after seeing so much horror, these women were detached and yet incredibly good at offering comfort, care and nurturing attention. I know this sounds like a contradiction, but a caretaker who makes you believe in your healing is worth much more than someone weeping by your bedside—such has been my experience.
Detachment isn't the same as indifference, the latter of which means not caring. Instead, detachment is skillful caring. When I meet someone who has mastered this skill, their behavior contains the following elements: (1) They don't use someone else's suffering in order to describe their own; (2) They pay attention to practical matters first, such as quality of food and other basic needs; (3) They don't point out the good they are doing or look for credit or praise; (4) They have learned how to remain calm in a crisis through repetition, practice and experience; (5) If the suffering person wails and complains, they don't judge. They allow grief, anguish, anxiety and every other stressful response to take its natural course, while not giving in to these responses themselves.
Learning this kind of skillful caring doesn't help only the people you care for; it should be applied to yourself. Anxiety is complicated and multidimensional—but so are you and I, which gives us the ability to acquire emotional resilience, to learn new responses, to learn from others and to find the core in ourselves that fear cannot disturb.
Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP is the co-author with Rudy Tanzi, Ph.D., of the new book Super Genes: Unlock the Astonishing Power of Your DNA for Optimum Health and Well-Beingand founder of The Chopra Foundation. His is also co-founder of The Chopra Center, a fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.