Digging Our Own Grave –
The word “grave” has two meanings:
- We use it when we want to indicate that something is serious, or has the potential to be harmful or dangerous.
- Then there’s the kind of grave we use to bury those who have departed.
Either way, the word invokes the experience of anxiety we often have about our future. The fact is, we create grave experiences for ourselves all the time. Yet, anxiety is usually just an unconscious cycle of false alarms.
We can’t have anxiety and clarity at the same time.
SO THE GOOD NEWS IS – When we get clear about what we’re really feeling, our anxiety levels automatically decrease. The key to naturally reducing anxiety lies in using our awareness in a particular way…
Anxiety on Autopilot
How often do you find yourself just trying to get through the day while a nagging sense of unease follows you around like a shadow? If we’d take the time to stop and be more mindful of this experience, we’d realize that we’re impacted by underlying anxiety more often than we think.
In some cases, our anxiety is “free floating.” In other words, it’s the product of a physiological habit rather than the result of a particular trigger or cause (aka “general anxiety”).
In many other situations, however, our anxiety does have a cause. And because the feelings that underlie anxiety are uncomfortable, we often try to ignore them.
Here’s the problem: our grave feelings tend to get worse the more we ignore them. And we’re extra inclined to try and ignore grave feelings because they don’t feel good. This creates an anxiety loop.
The reason has to do with the way our brains are wired and how certain behaviors and thought patterns interact with the part of our brain called the amygdala, a brain region that influences much of our emotional experience. When we’re not making the effort to be mindful of our experience, the amygdala can get stuck continually retriggering our anxiety.
Like your crazy, out of control alcoholic cousin, sometimes your amygdala needs an intervention!
Here’s a quick and easy way to get your amygdala to chill.
Name the Feeling
Step 1. Ask yourself the question, “What am I ignoring?”
It may be that the first thing that comes into your mind while answering this question is clearly a major source of stress in your life. But if an answer doesn’t immediately come to mind, don’t worry! Taking an extra minute to reflect and jot down some first-thought ideas about what you’ve been ignoring will give you plenty to work with.
Step 2. Now ask yourself, “What am I feeling about what I’ve been ignoring?”
You may wish to say it to yourself out loud, or write down your answer.
In any case, all you need to do is acknowledge the feeling with simplicity. No drama needed. Simply say (or write) to yourself, “I feel [fill in the blank].” Most feelings roughly correspond to one of four basic feelings: mad, sad, glad and scared.
Tip: You might feel tempted to come up with elaborate labels for your experience, a list of reasons why you feel this way, lots of storylines, etc. None of that is helpful for this particular exercise. The point is simply to acknowledge the truth of your emotional experience, not to analyze it or get carried away explaining or justifying that experience.
Step 3. Find a good listener.
Find someone you trust to just listen as you explore your feeling truth. It should be someone who won’t correct, judge, or be threatened by your expression of feeling. Not only will using them as a sounding board help you experience your feelings more deeply, you’ll get the bonus of feeling more grounded and calm that comes with human contact.
What to Expect
The practice of acknowledging our feelings can bring tremendous clarity and relief. That said, you might stir up other strong feelings in the process. If you’re not used to that kind of thing, you might feel like something has gone wrong, that you’re being illogical, or even going off your rocker.
Again, don’t worry. Just take a deep breath and keep it simple. Remember: all you’re doing is acknowledging what’s already going on inside you as it arises. This is a practice of acknowledging – not stewing! The more you continue this practice with a “no drama” mindset, the better it will get. This practice will help you to fully feel and then let go more fluidly.
The point is, you can’t “let go” of something you can’t first hold. Mindful ownership of our experience is necessary before we can “let go” of our feelings.
Why It Works
The process of naming your feelings trains a more conscious part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) to take its proper role in your experience. As the prefrontal cortex gets more involved, the amygdala is going to relax a bit. Kind of like the way a hysterical child might relax once his or her parent enters the room.
As it turns out, the process of naming anything (not just feelings) causes the prefrontal cortex to fire in a way that balances the activity of the limbic system. The amygdala, being part of the limbic system and a regulator of our anxiety levels, can be calmed and tamed by the simple act of naming.
Then, if we find ourselves able to openly share our feelings with a good listener, we experience the added benefit of feeling accepted and witnessed by someone who cares. This boosts levels of other important feel-good brain juices like serotonin and oxytocin.
Feeling closer to the person who is listening improves our relationship with them and can deepen levels of satisfaction within the relationship. Yay! Everybody wins!
Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.”
-Thích Nhất Hạnh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation
Go ahead – practice freedom.
Thanks for making the human race a little more free.