- Emily Corley
Unwinding from Anxiety
How do we step out of our habitual relationship with anxiety?
To answer this question, we first must look at the experience of anxiety. Emotion, while arising wholly in our mind, is embedded in experience. And all our experience is embodied. What does this mean?
Becoming conscious of who we are and how our life has unfolded is not enough to genuinely heal. To heal we must feel our way through the content of our life. We can consciously know and talk about our experience of anxiety, but if we haven’t fully felt that anxiety, we haven’t fully processed our experience of it. Because we haven’t fully processed our experience of it, the anxiety stays with us.
Further, our unprocessed anxiety resides in our body, or soma. Therefore, our somatic experience includes our unprocessed experience from our entire life. Or lifetimes.
We can take this a step further by looking deeply into the nature of somatic experience. When we do, we see the inter-relationships between our unprocessed experience and our energetic, spiritual. mental, emotional, and physical response to this unprocessed experience. And further, from this knot of systemic, unprocessed experience, we have created confused thoughts:
about who we are and
how life is.
In fact, our confusion about who we are and how life is, altogether, resides within our somatic experience. The state of our health and our physical ailments – often, not always - conspire to reflect to us the entire ‘story’ of how we have created our reality based on how we interpret our life experience.
Over the last ten years, the burgeoning field of somatic awareness has come to the fore. It has developed from research into the nature and function of mind and mind’s impact on all aspects of our experience: energetic, emotion, mental, physical function, etc. The disciplines of meditation, psychotherapy, and medicine have made independent and significant contributions to our understanding of somatic experience as we heal and wake up.
We universally experience anxiety as tension within our body. Lots of tension. Habitual patterns of tension. Because we can feel our tension, we know anxiety resides within us. Inversely, by feeling our tension, we can access our anxiety.
This quickest, most effective, and most efficient way to get to know our anxiety, to see and feel how we embody anxiety, and unwind from anxiety is to go on retreat. Meditation retreat, yoga retreat, at home retreat. In retreat, we step out of our habitual experience. If our retreat is well conceived and executed (not all retreats are!), we live each day within a well-defined schedule that allows us to unwind. Our body unwinds. Our mind unwinds.
We get to watch our moment-to-moment impulses. Our impulses arise from our over-active mind signaling us to say, do, or go in a manner complicit with our anxiety. Ideally, our retreat schedule and activities are aligned with sanity, not anxiety. Resting in sanity, we take note of our impulses and chose not to act on them. By doing so, we see them.
We see the ways our mind contrives to keep us insanely busy, multitasking, distracting, entertaining, relating to neurotic preoccupations. Our mind does this to diffuse the latent emotional experiences residing within us, the ones we don’t want to feel. Some of them are waiting to be felt and known, some are catastrophic experiences buried far away.
When we stay within the well-defined activities of retreat, we unwind. There are several predictable experiences we go through as we unwind. First, we sleep. We feel our backlog of fatigue and relate to it directly. We sleep more than we imagined we could, often 10 or 12 hours a day. With naps. If our retreat is long enough, a week or more, there comes a morning when we wake up fresh after a more ‘normal’ period of sleep. If we let ourselves sleep - by day three, generally - we will have significantly recovered our vitality.
Second, we take note of the litany of thought impulses that course through our mind. The things we habitually think or think to say to change our situation. Many of them arise from our need to deflect feelings of shame, inadequacy, confusion, hesitation, fear, vulnerability, etc. Instead, we feel the emotion itself. And feel the relief of feeling them and not acting on them. By feeling them and not acting, ultimately, we relax.
Third, we take note of our tendencies to act, to get up and go and do. Again, by not doing, we get to see how many of these impulses arise from anxiety. By not acting on them, the impulses diffuse. We relax.
The longer we stay in retreat, the more we see and unwind. A week reveals and achieves a lot. A month is transformative. Group retreat is the best way to start – it’s easier. We hand facilitation of the retreat over to people who are skilled at holding a strong and balanced container, one that is neither too tight nor too loose.
At the end of retreat, we are significantly unwound. While we still have our physical, emotional, and life issues, we approach them from a place that is more relaxed. Because we are unwound, we think about them and relate to them with greater and more accurate discrimination, intelligence, clarity, and insight.
Many of us go on vacation imaging we will relax. Few do. Instead, we impose our anxious agenda onto our vacation. We see and do lots of things, but don't necessarily relax.
Short of retreat, we can accomplish a measure of genuine unwinding by assigning a quiet agenda onto a defined period of time. To do so, we must put aside our trump card called: productivity. Our agenda is to unwind, so we chose to do very little. Instead, we quietly and thoroughly make and drink a cup of tea. We might employ one of my favorite meditation practices, Aimless Wandering. This is walking outside with no agenda, destination, or thought of going anywhere. Instead we follow our engagement with a deeper, genuine relationship with experience. If a plant is of interest, we sit and look at it. If a trail compels us, we walk along it. If the clouds speak to us, we sit and look at them.
We sit and read a book. We meditate. We get daily exercise. We make a healthy meal, giving this job our full attention. As we relax, our sense of humor and light-hearted nature emerge. We might even take this further by aligning our full attention with all our daily tasks. In his book, Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living, Thich Nhat Hanh ascribes simple meditation exercises to everyday tasks as a means of slowing down into the full experience of daily life. As we do these deceptively simple tasks, we unwind.