Over 40 million Americans and over 6 million Brits are thought to be currently suffering from some form of anxiety, and according to a very recent report commissioned by the UK government, the cost of mental and emotional illnesses to the UK economy is between £74bn and £99bn per annum. The human cost is much greater.
Something is seriously broken and the reality is that most of us suffer from unhealthy, underlying levels of anxiety at some point – but is the problem being overcomplicated by a lack of knowledge and too readily available medications? And can we therefore do more ourselves to fix it?
The anxiety scale
Anxiety can take many forms such as a constant underlying feeling of unease, an ongoing willing for something else in our lives to make us feel better, or it can be experienced as intense panic and impending doom – one of the most horrible emotional experiences imaginable.
When I do talks on anxiety and emotional wellbeing, I refer to the ‘anxiety scale’ which helps individuals do a bit of self-analysis. Let’s say this scale ranges from one to ten – with one being the blissful state enjoyed by a Tibetan monk in deep meditation, and ten being a panic/anxiety attack. The number we sit at on this scale is always going to fluctuate in our daily lives to a point, but the main problem in today’s modern western world is that most of us sit too high up this scale in the first place – at say between five and seven – but don’t acknowledge it as a problem because it is very much our habitual state and we therefore class it as ‘normal’. We have been familiar with it perhaps for decades and so we have no lower state to measure it against.
Sitting higher up this scale in itself not only affects things like our focus, productivity, our sleep and ultimately our happiness day to day as our emotional brain (our amygdala) takes over our rational brain (our neocortex). But it also means that when very challenging life situations arise such as; a stressful workload, relationship problems, financial worries, health issues etc then it is all too easy to be pushed further up that scale. This is when anxiety then greatly affects our everyday functioning and can result in that six/seven becoming a nine or ten, bringing with it the many more symptoms that high levels of anxiety cause. And so the vicious circle continues, until we learn how to stop it.
What is causing it?
As human beings, it is estimated that most of us have around 70,000 thoughts a day of which it is said around 90% are negative and repetitive (and we wonder why we’re in the state we’re in!). Let me now drop another bombshell – most thoughts are unnecessary! What do I mean by this? Well, all of us have a voice in our head, that little mind made self or the ‘ego’ as it’s more commonly known spiritually. In most cases, this voice kicks in as soon as we wake up in the morning –“I wonder what today will bring”, “I still can’t believe he/she said that to me yesterday”, “I feel anxious again, I’ll never get better” – and this is all probably before we reach for our phones to check emails, social media, the news – further fuelling those fearful, critical, judgmental negative thoughts which will continue throughout the day – thoughts that constantly pull us away from the present moment, projecting us into the future which is illusory, or ruminating over the past. It’s not so much thoughts but more like ‘incessant mental noise’ as Eckhart Tolle the spiritual teacher calls it, like a generator constantly whirring in the background – and like most generators that have been on for a while and you have become used to them, you only actually notice they were there in the first place when they are switched off.
All these negative repetitive thoughts have an energy form and it’s therefore little wonder that anxiety can also drain us of physical energy. Many of the thoughts trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response system, an innate mammalian tool which is there to save us from real danger, flooding our bodies with stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin, increasing our heart rate, shortening our breathing, producing sweat, distorting our thinking – all preparing us to run like hell or to stick around and fight. The trouble is there is nothing to fight or run from and the same system can’t tell the difference between real danger and the perceived danger created by our minds (hence we can lie awake at night in a warm safe bed but be in the grip of anxiety).
So how can we fix this and lessen the number of thoughts?
One of the most transformational realisations on a mental and emotional level is to understand that you are not your thoughts… you are not the thinker. This is something taught by Eckhart Tolle, author of the international bestseller The Power of Now.
What does this mean? Well do an experiment, sit quietly for a couple of minutes and close your eyes. Notice how often thoughts creep in trying to pull you away from internal quiet. When you notice this then this is you realising you are not your thoughts but that you are actually the witness of your thoughts. Take a second to fully comprehend this – you are not your thoughts, you are the witness of your thoughts.
Recognising this in itself is a great first step forward, and by becoming aware of it you are moving from thinking to awareness, from the past/future to the present moment and then by continuing to simply ‘observe the thinker’, we reduce the number of negative thoughts we have. We put a gap in the stream of thinking, a gap of ‘no-mind’ the place between thoughts where no negativity and anxiety can exist and we break the vicious anxiety circle and in time these gaps will increase. It is not simply powerful enough to replace negative thought with something else or with positive thought. The mind needs an anchor otherwise the egoic mind has such momentum that you won’t be able to stop it and that is when one thought leads to another, to another and so on.
Meditation is the new ‘fashionable’ spiritual practice and it is something I do myself and is extremely beneficial in training your mind to be aware of thoughts and not attaching yourself to them. However, conforming to a twenty minute meditation routine in the morning, but allowing your mind to run away with itself the rest of the day is the same as a smoker giving up cigarettes for twenty minutes a day but chain smoking in between times, it’s pretty useless. The practice has to be continuous until being aware of mental noise becomes second nature.
It all sounds very simple, and it is indeed simple – simple but not easy! You are changing potentially decades of habit when you try to quieten the ego and the ego is a very insecure, persuasive entity that carries a fear of annihilation and will therefore do it’s best to distract you from awakening. Once mastered though, along with other techniques such as severing the link between emotions and thought, then the effects are quite simply life-changing – not only for those who suffer from high levels of anxiety but for everyone, to help you become more resilient and to allow space for more joy to come in.
We live in a time where it is almost a necessity to be more spiritual, to control our minds and to be always conscious of our thoughts and the negative illusions they create. The human mind is a very powerful tool when used for us but used against us it can be very destructive and can have a detrimental effect on our emotional, mental and physical health.
There are many modern day spiritual teachers whose teachings are becoming more recognised such as Eckhart Tolle, Gabrielle Bernstein and people like Arianna Huffington who’s company Thrive, the corporate wellbeing company are making great headway in introducing similar principles within their wellbeing programs in business – introducing longer term programs to break habit and create lasting cultural change.
Don’t simply take my word for any of this, try it for yourself and if something within you resonates with it on a deeper level then this is you experiencing you’re first shift in consciousness. If not, then fine, you just may not be ready yet.
We need to look internally instead of externally to overcome anxiety or to help lead a more fulfilled life and I have seen the benefit many times first hand. As Michael Angelo said “the angel is already in the marble, all you have to do is chip away the marble”.
The marble in this case being the ego.