I'm struggling greatly with anxiety at the moment. I get terrible insomnia, and even panic attacks occasionally. What can I do about it?

Ah, anxiety. This is a very common, fairly modern, problem. One interesting thing about anxiety, is it often co-arises with depression (though, usually not at the same time—more like, the same person will exhibit alternating symptoms.) So, I'd be like, remiss if I didn't point out that it uh, may be good to go see a therapist or something. I've also gotten pretty into this book on the topic, Lost Connections, so if reading is your thing then I recommend it.

That said, I think there is a crucial component about both anxiety and depression that we miss in modern culture; a lot of anxiety is created by our own internal narrative. For example, imagine a man waiting for his girlfriend, who is running late. If he thinks to himself "she's probably flirting with her coworkers at work," he's likely to be a lot more anxious than if he thinks "she probably got swamped with a last minute project at the office." The way we choose to explain the ambiguous events in our lives matters. It matters a lot.

I'm pretty into meditation, for various reasons, but one of its benefits is that it is a tool to help you get this bullshit narrative under control. One of my meditation practices is counting breath meditation, which is basically exactly what it sounds like—I sit somewhere and count my breaths. I count on both the in and the out, but you can check out that link for more detailed instructions.

Anyway, details aside, generally what happens for most people when they meditate is that they get distracting thoughts. This is not a problem; in fact, for anxiety purposes, this is exactly what we want to be working with.  What meditation helps you do is shift your focus after having anxious thoughts, which ultimately helps you "let them go." Often, hippie types describe "letting go" as an easy or peaceful thing, but in my experience, it's actually quite frustrating, and often a very subtle thing. For me, it's often not so much that I'm able to completely let something go, as much as I am often able to admit the possibility that I could be wrong. Getting a bit of space around the narrative we tell ourselves, transforming "she's probably flirting with her coworkers at work" into something more like "maybe she's flirting with her coworkers at work, but more importantly, what emotions is this thought generating in me? why am I drawn to it?" can help us be open to new possibilities, and stop us from getting trapped in thought cycles. 

Of course, I do not intend this to be a complete answer. Sometimes we get anxiety because we do things we shouldn't be doing, like working a horrible job or being friends with a toxic person. Sometimes we get anxiety because of trauma in our past. And, sometimes we get anxiety because our girlfriend really is cheating on us. But, noticing our narrative and being open to the possibility that it may not always be true is often an important step in unravelling the whole mess.
Published on Wednesday April 11, 2018