When I’m anxious I am completely, utterly non-curious. So up in my head that I disconnect from what is in front of me. Curiosity is the opposite of anxiety. When we are anxious we are fighting our fear. We have withdrawn to the cerebral world and ‘what if’ becomes our mantra. The mind quickly makes up scenarios, forms links, draws conclusions. It’s excellent at those activities. And the body, ever reflective and immediate, joins in with the sympathetic nervous system response. So our stomach goes funny, breath quickens as does heart, we may get hot or cold, dizzy, get numb or tingly in the fingers or toes, we may feel paralysed, get a dry mouth. We are over estimating threat. And that threat has nothing to do with what’s actually here. If it was, then that’s just called fear and the response is appropriate. Anxiety is when we get triggered, turn on ourselves and start being our own worst enemy as we try to feel safe. We seek reassurance. We turn to our mind and we expect it to solve our feelings.
And we stop being curious.
What we need to cultivate is the habit of meeting perceived danger with presence. With interest. With clear eyed curiosity. This is a really brave thing to do.
Pema Chodron, awesome 82-year-old Buddhist Nun and meditation teacher, was asked if she still experiences feelings like fear, anger, jealousy, being pissed off and the like. She replied ‘oh yeah. It’s just that now I get really interested in it’. When we are curious, we are connected to our observer self. We have woken up to the fact that something is happening here, and I can choose to find it interesting. It’s impossible to be curious and properly anxious at the same time. Curiosity is engaged. It leans toward. Anxiety has us retreat, try our best to get out of our own reality, our own skin. This can escalate all the way to panic attack of course, which gives the mind some new material focused on physical dysfunction.
The medical model of thinking really encourages us to seek what’s wrong. To assume pathology. This medical thinking has greatly influenced psychology, and it is only recently that the field is starting to move away from a reductionist lens on human suffering. That kind of thinking assumes something that should/can be eradicated. It’s this type of thinking that makes anxiety worse.
If you have pneumonia, you definitely want to take, and be treated by a practitioner with, a reductionist stance. There is a pathogen it can be eradicated. Tests can be performed, the problem identified, and a cure administered. When anxious, if you disappear inside your mind and adopt this approach, all you will get is more anxiety. And then panic as your body does its job of signalling that the threat level has now reached defcon four.
To meet anxiety with skill we need to habituate getting out of the head and the quest to solve and eradicate, and into the present moment. The senses. The awareness itself. Then we wait for it to pass while staying engaged. We wait for it to pass like we would a storm. because that’s what it is - a thought storm.
And it always, always does pass.
And if we can cultivate becoming more curious in general, we will get less anxiety. We appraoch the world and will start to feel more at home in it. Because isn’t that what started the whole thing off in the first place? Sensitivity + life experiences that made the world unsafe in some way. So, we retreated and started the mission to solve and control.
Let’s stop doing that.