You are vulnerable. That is simply a fact. You have limits to control over things that matter to you. Vulnerability is a fact, but it is also a physical experience. When you’re faced with vulnerability (limits to control, uncertainty, or a rise in emotion), your muscles brace and tighten, your heart beats faster, your breath speeds up, and you feel agitated. And here is the amazing thing: your body wants to get your attention right in that moment, because that moment is your opportunity to grow.
Anxiety problems are actually ways you escape discomfort in the body. You don’t realize it but you escape present-time reality and go into your head to avoid uncomfortable sensations.
The problem with anxiety is not how you experience it. The problem is you don’t actually experience it much at all. You automatically abandon yourself when your body braces. Without registering your tight shoulders or held breath you get impatient, feel an urge to pace, grab a bag of Cheetos, launch into a worry movie, or scan your Instagram feed. Or you may notice discomfort but instead of distracting away from it you tell yourself stories of danger (There’s something wrong with me; I’m going to pass out) or weakness (I’m a coward; People will judge me).
As the Buddhists say, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. You have a choice about what you do next. If you ignore vulnerability in your body when emotion moves you, you suffer. If you tune in and soothe your body, you will grow. This is the enigma of personal growth: you must do the opposite of what comes naturally. Rather than avoid, you need to turn towards and feel unrest in your body when it calls to you.
The aim of much advice on anxiety is to distract from it, suppress it, or rationalize it away. People use cognitive and behavioral strategies so they can learn to not feel their anxiety. I want you to do the opposite. I want to give you a new way of understanding and responding to anxiety. And the first step is to give this profoundly healthy signal a new name: unrest. Unrest is a just signal to wake up, like the sound of an alarm clock – there is no need to be alarmed. In its discomfort, unrest calls you wake up and grow.
You need to stop leaving your agitated body via scary movies and stories and harsh criticisms. Come home and tune in and really feel your body, so it knows it is safe. Then you can feel emotion, lean into life, and grow into your most authentic, resilient, and connected self. Just as your body tenses and you have the urge to distract and make up scary stories to avoid all the fuss, a doorway opens to your biggest life. It is time to walk through that door. It is time to grow your capacity to slow down and pay attention to unrest, so you can soothe your body and heal anxiety for good.