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Navigating our way in the age of anxiety

The art of compassionate curiosity in the face of adversity

corporate office illustrationThe more curious we get, the more we are able to distance ourselves from anxiety and be compassionate towards it (Illustration credit: Suvajit Dey)

Doesn’t it strike you as strange that we might have survived a pandemic but our lives are back on the pre-2020 treadmill as if the last two years did not happen at all? No wonder we are hearing so many stories of stress, worry and anxiety. Just in the last one week, I have met children and young people who have talked about their fears — of being ridiculed, of what people think of them, of not finding love, of not getting into a good college, of not finding the right job, of being overlooked, of the climate crisis, of not having enough money, of not having the right body, of being irrelevant. It is a never-ending list and the repeated themes come down to “not doing enough, not being enough,” and therefore, always being “less, lonely and a loser.”

Before we start rolling our eyes and throwing up our hands at, “kids these days,” let me clarify, this is just not the children, it is all around us. Go back to the list and think of how many people you know who might be struggling with the same. And if you read my column regularly, you will know where I am going with this — the problem is not the youth, the problem is the socio-cultural context that defines who is worthy and who gets pushed to be “less, lonely and a loser.” It is not easy growing up in a society which has stringent requirements of success and is quick to push labels of failure onto us.

As a response to what I am hearing and experiencing every day, I decided to put down the collective wisdom of the people I have worked with over the years and what they have found helpful when anxiety strikes:

Name it: Anxiety tricks us into believing that there is something wrong with us — that we are not smart enough, not worthy enough or maybe just not trying hard enough. When actually we need to turn the lens on the society which propagates anxiety rampantly by creating pressure on us to act, look, and perform in a particular way. We end up locating the problem within ourselves and churning with, “My friends do not call me because they think I am boring”, “I am ugly, so nobody will find me attractive!” Before we know, we are speaking its language and believing it is true. What name would you give these fears? One person called it “noise”, while another called it “jitters.” It might be a better idea to use a noun rather than a verb or an adjective.

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It is not me: By naming it, we are able to create a distance between ourselves and the problem and not internalise it as a truth about ourselves. Sanvi had been told from an early age that she was an anxious child and she had internalised that as the truth about herself and let it define her. However, when we started deconstructing she decided to name the anxiety as “static” and was able to separate herself from it and see how it had started taking over her identity and life. We unpacked years of messages she had internalised, “I will mess things up”, or “I am only as good as the marks I get”. Once she understood the workings of “static”, she could unspool its hold on her life.

Question it: Next time your version of static shows up, observe it from all angles. Where does it show up in the body? How would you describe the sensation — hot, cold, heavy, piercing, front, back, left, right? What happens when you gently breathe into it until it feels lighter? Sanvi shared that it really helped her to just focus on the sensation and not see it as anxiety which unclenched its grip on her. Mansi had lived with anorexia and she realised how it recruited anxiety to scare her with ideas like, “If you eat, you will become fat!” She had done enough research to know that anxiety and anorexia had worked together to build neural networks or what she called the “habit loop” in her brain to build fear of food. She declared to me that what she had found helpful was, “Doing the opposite of what habit loop tells me! Every time it tells me to starve myself, I go and eat something”. And one step at a time, she was rewiring her brain and standing up to the “habit loop.”

Compassionate curiosity: Sanvi told me “Curiosity is a superpower”, and I could not agree with her more. After checking for the sensation, if it does not step away, ask some questions to see through some of its tricks – What is it trying to convince me of? What is it pushing me to believe about myself, or the world? How is it comparing me to others? What predictions is it trying to make about the future? The more curious we get, the more we are able to distance ourselves from the anxiety. And then go one step ahead and show compassion towards it. You will find that no matter how the anxiety might be visiting you — as a static, nagging voice, tone of dread, in a warped way it might be trying to serve or protect you or funnily, look out for you. It might tell you, “you are going to mess up the presentation”, “they will find out that you are such a fraud” — behind these cutting reprimands there is a concern, though misplaced, that is trying to warn us of our own shortcomings to face what it sees as a dangerous world. So rather than taking an adversarial stance of fighting or getting rid of the anxiety, which will, in turn, make it even more entrenched, it might help if we take a more compassionate position.

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Find the counter expansive voice: Sabah explained, “When I am compassionately curious, I can sense the anxiety melting and I can listen to a counter-voice.” When I asked her what was that counter voice, she said, “It’s a voice full of love, wisdom and courage. If anxiety contracts me, the counter voice expands me.” If you could find that counter expansive voice — what would you call it? What are the kind of things you do that invite it in? How does it feel different in your body? What does it make possible for you in your relationships, work and maybe, finding joy in the smallest of things? How does it make your life richer? Young people I have consulted have talked about finding their counter expansive voice through being close to nature, deep conversations on things that they value with people they love, reading, playfulness, meditation, mindfulness, gratitude journaling, dancing, art, cooking, and experiences that bring a sense of awe — like the night sky, sea, mountains.

So now over to you, what would be your “superpower” that you will use to lower the voice of anxiety and reclaim your life?

Shelja Sen is a narrative therapist, writer, co-founder of Children First Institute of Child & Adolescent Mental Health. Her latest book is Reclaim Your Life

First published on: 26-09-2022 at 10:00:33 am
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