I have been on the warpath of late against what I now call “habitual anxiety”.
I have also discovered that anxiety (in all of its forms) makes a formidable opponent.
Habitual anxiety, by my very unscientific and totally unverifiable definition, is that inner state which occurs when a being – human or animal – becomes so accustomed to feeling anxious that any other feeling – including peace – actually feels unnatural or even unpleasant.
I suppose that the psychological greats like B.F. Skinner or Ivan Pavlov might call this “conditioning”. But since that term to me simply reminds me that I forgot to do my arm weights again this morning, I prefer habitual anxiety.
Luckily, just recently I finally found something that seems to help.
I have been doing meditations to attempt to train myself out of habitual anxiety and into inner peace. In these meditations, I affirm a set of statements, accompanied all the while by deep breathing and visualizations. I have become so good at reeling off these statements and their corresponding breaths and images that I could likely qualify for the American team for Olympic synchronized breathing-and-talking-and-visualizing, were there such a sport.
Sadly, to date there is not.
But just a few days ago, I made a breakthrough. And I am quite sure that if (when) the Olympic committee hears about this, they will move promptly to rectify the omission. In the meantime, I am so excited that I am practicing constantly.
The breakthrough I made is this: I must “feel my words” in order to accomplish my goal.
When I affirm, for instance, my wish for inner contentment, in that very moment when I speak the word “contentment” I must become a world-class actor and “imagine as if”, feeling what it would feel like if I were content. No matter how anxious I might be feeling over this or that in that precise moment, I have in the past felt contentment, so I do know what it feels like. I can recall that feeling as I speak the word “contentment”, and for a few seconds I am literally in that state of contentment again.
This throws my habitual anxiety for a loop. I find that simply delightful.
I also find it….peaceful. My work has now become not to expect my words to enforce a state of contentment down on top of my underlying anxiety, in essence attempting to smother it to death, but to instead use the words I am speaking to encourage my mind to imagine a state of contentment, which it does by suggesting to my emotional and limbic system that its job would be much easier if only they would just feel contented already.
They usually – obediently – comply. I have a few seconds of blessed contentment. And the more I concentrate and tune in to that feeling, the longer my periods of inner peace and contentment last.
Habitual anxiety is a habit. In my life anyway, experiencing the state of habitual anxiety does not necessarily need to correspond to any current anxiety-provoking incident, but instead it simply seems to serve as a sort of pre-fight-or-flight syndrome, staying ever on high alert just in case. This is very draining to my mind, my emotions, and my body, and leaves me vulnerable to fatigue, illness, and (not surprisingly) ever escalating anxiety. If left unchecked, it can cause panic attacks.
The other thing I have found especially valuable is to reassure myself that every tiny bit of progress is progress, and that overcoming any habit, including the habit of anxiety, will take time. While I am not totally sure when my personal state of anxiety became habit-forming, I certainly know that with other longstanding habits I have had to break, like my eating disorder for instance, it has taken quite some time to achieve my goal.
So I have also found myself practicing patience alongside contentment and peace. The technique is equally effective, I have found, against any longstanding habitual state, whether mental or emotional.
Today’s Takeaway: If you, too, struggle with any sort of habitual state of mind or feeling, would it perhaps be helpful to reserve a small part of your day each day to practice its opposite on both an emotional and a mental level?
Anxious woman photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 24 Nov 2012