Anxiety & Impermanence

There are 2 books that I’ve been reading a lot of lately: Refuge Recovery by Noah Levine and What Do You Do With a Problem? by Kobi Yamada (see last week's post for more about that one). One is a book that outlines a Buddhist approach to recovering from addiction, and the other is an illustrated children’s book. They both have a lot of wisdom that can be applied to the emotion of anxiety.


In the first few pages of Levine’s book, he describes the phenomena of impermanence. He says:

We are born into a mind/body process that is constantly changing in a constantly changing world. Everything is impermanent - every pleasure, every pain, every body. But the survival instincts crave permanence and control. The body wants pleasure to stay forever and pain to go away forever. This is the very cause of attachment and aversion. The fact of impermanence leads to a generalized unsatisfactoriness.


Right?! Folks, let’s just breathe on that for a moment...


We all have coping mechanisms to deal with the generalized unsatisfactoriness that we live with as a result of the impermanence of life. Some coping mechanisms are healthy: yoga, meditation, reading, gardening, knitting. Others aren't as nourishing: shopping, binge-watching shows on Netflix, drinking, eating pints of Ben & Jerry's. But yet another coping mechanism that can be used to escape this lack of control and constantly changing ways of our minds and bodies and worlds is anxiety.


Anxiety may not seem like the cozy getaway that back-to-back episodes of Gilmore Girls provides, but think about this for a minute. All of the not-so-healthy activities are ways to escape from our feelings via suppression, reaction, avoidance, or self-medication. We try to evade the True Emotions (yes, capital T, capital E) that are vibrating through our bodies by moving toward behaviors that, basically, distract our attention. Anxiety works in exactly the same way. 


The first time you felt anxiety, you probably didn’t know what it was. Your body reacted, involuntarily, to something that you perceived as stressful or painful and ignited the fight-or-flight response. Since the stressor was probably closer to a PTA meeting gone bad than the proverbial saber-tooth tiger, there wasn’t a natural outlet for all of that energy and you were left with a panic attack. It wasn’t fun or comfortable, sure, but here’s the thing: it worked. It got you out of the painful feelings that you were having about a mom in the next row and distracted you completely. A new coping mechanism was born.


Fast-forward a few months or years or decades (i.e. to the point where you’re thinking that anxiety is no longer “working” so well for you) and you’re still feeling the emotion of anxiety and experiencing panic attacks when you find yourself in a stressful situation. You’re well aware of the roller coaster of anxiety and you almost expect panic attacks as a reaction to tension. But until now, maybe you hadn’t considered that anxiety was a coping mechanism; a way to keep yourself distracted from other, bigger, maybe scarier emotions. It doesn’t make sense on a rational level, I hear you…but it does make sense if you think of your mind as a clever machine that’s just trying to route around the most painful circumstances. In this light, your mind is trying to keep you safe. You’re trying to protect yourself.


So, back to impermanence. Impermanence (which is life) → generalized unsatisfactoriness → learned coping mechanisms in order to deal. Unhealthy coping mechanisms range from spending money to having sex to abusing substances to disordered eating. Coping mechanisms also include the use of emotions, like anxiety, to distract yourself from feeling the feelings that are really, truly coming up for you. The point being: anxiety is something that we try to use to deal with impermanence. And it works, until it doesn’t work anymore…