Permission for Joy – Learning to Deal with Anxiety
Who here has the type of anxiety that tells you that if you stay informed, hypervigilant, and anxious; imagining every possible worst-case scenario, that you will thereby ward off danger to yourself and loved ones?
Is this powerful thinking bringing you safety, and satisfaction? Or is it hijacking your happiness?
My brain is wired for magical thinking. Superstitious might be another word for it.
There is a very strong part of me that believes that if I allow myself to be truly relaxed and joyful, that something terrible would happen.
This trait developed during childhood as an adaptation to a world that felt out of control and it provided a sense of order and logic in circumstances where I felt powerless.
Have you ever felt this way?
Recently this part of me made herself known in a way where I finally awakened—which by the way is not a one-time thing, but rather an ever-evolving process.
I was in the car with my husband, the sun was shining, we were listening to one of my favorite songs, and I felt it, there in my chest. Bubbling up for a mere breath, before my protector part smashed it down. I would have almost missed it, but the stark contrast in my emotions caught my attention.
What just happened? My thoughts had been floating out of my conscious awareness and I mindfully hit the rewind button.
I had been swept away by the moment, by the light, and the music, and the freedom of the wind coming in the windows… and that bubbling feeling had been joy.
But then the moment was interrupted with the reality of the darkness taking place in the world. It brought me back to Earth: The thousands of people dying from COVID-19, suffering, homelessness, murder, and the world economy disintegrating. A black cloud covered the sunshine.
Sometimes feeling happy feels dangerous.
My part believed that if I was happy, then I was a bad person for not having empathy for the state of the world. It believed that if I relaxed, that something even worse than a world-wide pandemic would strike.
If you resonate with this, know, you are not alone.
In fact, your brain was wired for danger and empathy. This joy-crushing trait is evolutionarily part of why your family tribe survived so long and why you are having these existential musings, today.
Let me explain.
Imagine you are a hunter-gatherer, wandering in the forest and picking berries for your family to eat. You are with another member of your community, and she is picking berries, also. Then behind you, comes the low rumble of a momma bear. Having heard that sound once before, and remembering a story from another who had barely escaped a bear attack—you immediately abandon the berry-picking mission and run for safety. Your compatriot however hadn’t logged that sound away into her brain, she hadn’t paid as much attention to the warnings from the community, and she is lost in her happy thoughts…. and then became bear breakfast.
People who were adept at identifying and responding to danger quickly were more likely to survive, as opposed to those who did not possess that ability.
Your brain can instantly download something negative and frightening and store it as a trauma. But it is much more difficult to integrate something positive. In fact, research has shown that it requires around 30 seconds of mindful focus, for your brain to flag a thought or moment as worth remembering.
So, if we go back to the moment in the car.
There were two realities at play:
The first was that the world was beautiful, the sun was bright, there was pleasing music, and I was with someone I loved. The other reality was: Yes, there is pain in the world, suffering, grief, loss, tragedy, and powerlessness.
This is the quandary of the opposites.
So how do we deal with this?
Notice your fearful part and say the following:
I want you to do an exercise with me. If you can, stop what you are doing, and just take a moment.
Look at your right hand: In your right hand is the light. This is empowerment, confidence, peace, joy, laughter… all of the good things you can think of. These things are of reality, and they matter to you. For me, it was the sunshine, the windows down, and my favorite song playing out of the speakers. It was health, provision, love, and my cavapoo, Sheva.
What belongs in your right hand? Notice it now.
Next, look at your left hand: It represents the darkness. It holds suffering, pain, trauma, illness, injury, loss, fear, and all of the suffering that you can imagine. These, too, are of reality, and they matter to you.
What belongs in your left hand? Notice it now.
You cannot have one without the other, light cannot exist without darkness, and nor can darkness exist without light.
Finally: Hold your hands out before you and notice that they both carry truths: Integration and truth come from holding the opposites.
My younger part did not know how to hold the opposites. Her response to chaos was to pursue rigidity. Others feel the pain so deeply that they have to suppress it and we see these people as suffering from “toxic happiness.”
I define toxic happiness as the overarching belief that pain is dangerous and must be suppressed for survival of the individual, and in response, the person forces themselves to only think of the positive and to reject anything that could be labeled as negative. These are often the people who give advice like, “Look at the bright side,” or “don’t be so negative,” or “pull yourself up by your boot straps, you’re fine.”
I want to pause here, and I want you to say the following out loud to yourself:
The second part of this entire conversation is to practice the art of partitioning. This is where the analogy of the spaghetti versus the waffle brain comes handy.
Spaghetti represents a brain where many thoughts and many topics are being processed at the same time. Spaghetti brains tend to be multitasking, busy, or distractible.
The waffle represents well demarcated times for thinking about specific chosen topics. When you want to think about anxiety, you jump into the anxiety waffle, when you want to think about the beach, you jump into the beach waffle.
Is your brain more noodley or more waffely?
I want to give you some tips on waffle-a-fying your brain. The benefits to this are that we can mindfully honor the space that we are choosing to dwell in, and then we can decide when we’d like to move on to another space.
This is extrapolated from an exercise that I teach in my course, the Anxiety Breakthrough Program: Create Your Happily Ever After with the ACT Method. The exercise is called the PLOTLINE PIVOT and we are going to use the Plotline Pivot to practice the art of partitioning.
Here’s how it’s done:
We’re going to create a new waffle square: To begin, I want you to try to think of a time when you felt happy, or calm, or confident, or safe, or peaceful, or stable. For some of us, this is very difficult to do. If you cannot identify any of these states, just allow yourself to float on top of my voice and focus on your inhalation and exhalation. Right here. Right now. When we are new at living in one waffle square at a time, our spaghetti thoughts may try to wriggle themselves in there. But just say “thank you, not now. Thank you, not now.” Allow yourself to imagine that space that you have chosen. Imagine holding that in your right hand. This hand will hold truth in light. This is reflected in the image of in empowerment, confidence, peace, joy, laughter… all of the good things you can think of.
Then we are going to pivot. On the exhale, imagine jumping into the adjacent waffle square. This is the square that we will hold with our left hand. This square is where we acknowledge the darkness. This square holds empathy for suffering of others, and for your own suffering. This square holds space for pain, trauma, illness, injury, loss, and fear. Allow yourself to hold that space. Honor it. Breathe through it.
After a few moments, release the left hand, and pivot back to the right.
At first this exercise can be very difficult, because your hunter-gatherer brain may not have been wired this way. But the more you wire it, the more you’ll fire it. The more you practice this, the more your brain will change and become more able to pivot at will.
The objective is for you to hold the opposites. When I am mindful about practicing holding the opposites, I am better able to create space for empathy and suffering, but I am also able to experience joy. Not just bubbles of it, but waterfalls of it. When you hold the opposites, you do not need to swing from chaos to rigidity. You will be able to be in a place of peace, acceptance and fullest truth.
Remember the mantra that you told yourself earlier: Freedom comes from integration of the opposites.
I want you to get out your piece of paper again. Write this down and carry it with you:
I am choosing to turn the page and write my next ACT. And today, that begins by remembering to pivot.
And now for the disclaimer: The recording you just listened to consists of the personal opinions of Dr. Nicole Cain, Naturopathic Doctor, and while these opinions are based upon literature her counseling education, medical training, and clinical experience, this content should not be viewed as the definitive opinion on the subject.
Listening to this podcast is not a substitute for any sort of medical, psychological or other form of treatment. If you are in a crisis, please call 911, or call the national suicide prevention line at 1-800-273-8255.
If you are in need of counseling, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with a local counselor in your area.
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Stay in the conversation with me about writing the next chapter of your life the way you want it.
I’ll see you next time, here’s to your next chapter.