Managing Anxiety in Troubling Times

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We are all worried about the coronavirus. Our stable and predictable worlds were shaken by the rapid and unexpected onset of a terrible disease that’s caused us to upend our normal routines, become leery of contact with others, and see threats everywhere and with everyone. Our political leaders haven’t provided much comfort or assurance, and we have no idea how long this frightening state of affairs will continue. The anxiety you feel is to be expected. I feel anxious. Nobody is immune to the effect.

So many of our thoughts simmer below our conscious awareness, but these ideas still impact our moods and emotions. Even while immersed in work, these worrisome thoughts impinge on our minds, disturb our peace, and cause us to struggle with anxieties. It’s not pleasant to think about these things. I wish the whole thing would just go away. However, wishful thinking isn’t a solution, and burying your head in the sand will merely allow the anxieties to build in the background of your subconscious mind.

I practice meditation on a daily basis. I’ve been watching my own mind very carefully as this situation has unfolded, and I’ve been finding myself relying on one particular spiritual practice over and over again. I want to share that practice with you today. Just as an alchemist turns lead into gold, you can learn to transform your anxious thoughts and associated feelings into something virtuous and uplifting. It just takes a little practice to form the habit.

Whenever a disturbing thought arises in your mind – which happens much more often in times like these – it’s important to stop that thought from triggering other disturbing thoughts. The chain reaction of one thought triggering another and another is the surest way to amp up your anxiety levels. You need to identify that process at the earliest possible time and stop it before it lays waste to your piece of mind.

The practice I advocate – the one I’ve been practicing myself hundreds of times daily – is very simple. Whenever you feel anxiety or recognize a worrisome thought arising in your mind, divert yourself and think about the suffering of all those who are experiencing greater difficulties than you are. This is the virtuous seed of compassion, the desire to see everyone be free from pain and suffering. Times like this are wonderful opportunities to cultivate feelings of compassion – particularly since the alternative is to go down the rabbit hole and make yourself feel awful.

This isn’t theoretical or theological. It’s practical advice that really works.

Tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of workers worldwide are out of work. There are millions and millions of able-bodied people who are earning no money right now because their industry was deemed non-essential, and they were told to stay home. Those people are alone with their anxieties, trapped in their homes, facing mounting bills, no income, and dwindling savings and food supplies – and there is nothing they can do to correct the situation. They feel helpless and hopeless.

And those are the healthy ones. Many people are dealing with the coronavirus itself. In addition to all the anxieties felt by the group of unemployed, these people must endure the pain of respiratory failure and the very real possibility that they could perish. No matter what struggle you are facing, what potential outcome you are anxious to avoid, you are better off than most. Recognizing that fact will reduce your anxiety.

If you are worried about yourself and your life circumstances, when that becomes your all-consuming focus, you will struggle with anxiety.

If you think about other people, concern yourself with their well-being, consider the difficult circumstances that others must cope with, if you do these things, your anxiety will pass.

You will feel sad. Witnessing and absorbing the suffering of others is saddening, but coupled with the sadness is a wonderful feeling of unity with others and a spiritual wholeness that will carry you through the day.

I hope this advice helps you find peace of mind in these troubling times.

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I am Anattā. Not my real name, of course, but that’s the point. I selected the moniker Anattā because in Buddhism, my primary spiritual practice, the term anattā refers to the doctrine of “non-self”. In more practical terms, I chose the name Anattā because by writing anonymously, it’s far easier to be completely candid and honest. Further, there is no danger of my writing becoming tainted by any desire for self-aggrandizement. I write primarily to improve my own understanding of these topics, but my deepest desire for writing on this site is to help others.