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Why We Suffer From Anxiety and How We Can Overcome It

In any given year approximately 40 million Americans will suffer from a debilitating encounter with anxiety. Over the course of your lifetime, there’s a 25% chance you’ll experience a diagnosable anxiety disorder. This is such a staggering rate of affliction. It appears we’ve adapted to a new norm—one of mass disquiet. We have become habituated to—and normalized—an epidemic of anxiety.

If 40 million people fell suddenly ill, The Center for Disease Control would be working overtime to find both the cause and the cure. As a culture, we only look superficially into the cause of anxiety and focus more on the treatment—typically management through medication. We need to do much better. As a practicing psychotherapist, I’ve been looking at why we are suffering in this way. It’s time we disrupt our complacency around our victimhood.

Stress is normal in our hurried lives. We can look at stress as a byproduct of our adapting to the challenges that confront us. Stress is the result of our deeper engagement with life that can lead to growth, new learning and productivity. But when stress turns into distress it impedes our ability to live well, to live joyfully. Distress calcifies into anxiety. So, the question is: why do we suffer from this avalanche of anxiety? Here’s what I’ve learned.

Anxiety— at its source— is due to our relationship with our thoughts. In particular these are the thoughts which are perpetually seeking certainty. We want to know what the future will bring, and what the consequences of our decisions will be. But that future is of course unknowable. And so, we become anxious as we try to ward off the unknown. This results in our not being in the flow of life as we try to hold back the future. Ask yourself, “What causes me distress and anxiety?” Does it have something to do with your uncertainty about the future, your fear around decision-making?

I had been working with a middle-aged woman who came to see around her anxiety regarding her future. She had been unhappily married for quite some time and shared that she and her husband had been unsuccessful in marital therapy. They had grown apart, were contentious and had little in common. She felt that her marriage was a drag on her life. Given that she had no children and was financially independent I inquired why she was opting to stay married. She said, “I don’t know who I’d be as a divorced woman.”

There it was. Her fear around the unknown—which offered her possible relief and new possibilities—kept her imprisoned with anxiety. She was actually choosing to stay miserably in the known rather than face the uncertainty of a different path—one that might have brought her joy. The question, “Who would I be?” froze her with fear.

We invite uncertainty into many aspects of our lives. We enjoy watching sports and movies because of the thrill of not knowing. But in our personal lives we become choked by predictability and certainty. Seeking predictability stunts our relationships, our curiosity and our greater engagement with life.

So how did we become so attached to needing to know the future in advance? I track the cause to the great 17th century scientist Isaac Newton. He instructed that if we had sufficient information—in today’s jargon we might call that data—we could reasonably predict the future. This became known as determinism. And we have become addicted to this way of thinking.

Determinism has benefited us in many ways, but at the extreme it’s led to much pathology. We live life as though we were playing a chess match. We sit back and calculate our next move. We might fret over whether our decision will be a “mistake.” We slice and dice and analyze the possible consequences of our decisions and we get frozen. We don’t move forward as this straitjacket of fear blocks our flow of life. If you feel anxious around decision making, you’re likely addicted to seeking predictability.

Here’s the good news! It turns out we’ve been living from the wrong game plan. Over the last hundred years quantum physics has revealed an astonishingly different picture of reality. Unlike Newton’s determinism, reality appears to be thoroughly uncertain and that’s actually good news. It seems that nothing is fixed or inert. The universe appears to be perpetually flowing and bubbling with potentiality, a virtual sea of possibilities.

We too can join into that new worldview. When we learn to reframe our relationship with uncertainty, we invite in new possibilities. Remember that what you resist you make more formidable. Paradoxically if you choose to welcome uncertainty it becomes your ally. When we welcome uncertainty and literally embrace it, we are in movement, joining in the flow of the universe. We are then able to navigate our life as it unfolds, in real time.

Think of it this way: Uncertainty = Possibility. If reality is uncertain and we continue to demand certainty we will dysfunction and anxiety will be the result. To embrace uncertainty, we must change our relationship with our thoughts. Try to notice your thoughts. What are they telling you? If you see your thoughts trying to predict the future, release the thought. It’s just a thought, you don’t need to become that thought. “In the nanosecond before your next thought, you exist in a state of pure potential.”

When you free yourself from the torrent of addictive thoughts seeking certainty, you join in the flow of your life and anxiety retreats. It turns out that the epidemic of anxiety is primarily due to living from an outmoded game plan for life. It’s time to embrace what we’ve been resisting and make uncertainty your ally. Uncertainty can become the wind in the sail of our change process.

 

Transcending Anxiety, Stress and Depression.

A 6 week Live Streaming Online Workshop. Starts Wed. March 7th


 

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Our Quest for Significance

 What would it feel like to live your life with a deep sense of meaning and purpose?  Many of us long for this, but sadly few of us achieve it. Some of us never even consider this question. With few exceptions, most people are diminished due to feeling insignificant. The days turn into years in the blink of eye as we play out our scripted role in a robotic way. But who is writing that script?

We are scripting life life, although not knowingly. We become wed to our responsibilities— to our routines— and to the maddening predictability of life as we come to believe that there are few alternatives. So, we metaphorically shrug and surrender to not living the life we might have hoped for. The malaise that ensues contributes to our epidemic of depression and a host of other disorders.

We struggle in our quest for significance for a number of reasons:

1We weren’t schooled or raised, for the most part, to consider the question of what kind of life we’d like to live. We become focused on grades, colleges, jobs, marriage and children. These are all dearly important matters, but we omit the most vital consideration. The question we should be asking is: How would I like to experience my life? This inquiry prompts us to become the author of our life script, rather than just a character living out the already written plot.

2) We never learned how to overcome fear. The powerful cultural message that mandates us to avoid making mistakes, deprives us from living a fuller, richer life. The corralling of our beliefs into accepting that we shouldn’t take risks or step out of line, imprisons us into a numbing conformity. Living this way causes us to feel insignificant.

3We lose the capacity to be truly alive, conscious in the moment and making choices that reflect our deeper, intuitive wisdom. To feel significant requires a sense of being truly present in the moment enabling you to make choices that truly serve your higher purpose.

So how do we overcome these limitations?

 We need to live from a new game plan. To feel significant implies that you matter and that your empowered choices can better your life and those around you. The starting place for this shift is to free yourself from the grip of certainty and predictability. When our thoughts become wed to needing to know the future in advance, we become cogs in the machinery of our life. Significance require aliveness, as we become alert to our power to choose differently.  Being stuck in the groove of predictability is life defeating.

The new sciences are informing us that reality isn’t deterministic or certain, but awash with uncertainty. Rather than recoil from the notion of uncertainty, we should paradoxically welcome it. Think of it this way: uncertainty=possibilities. When you embrace the uncertain, you can ride the waves of your change process. This also enables us to release fear. Typically, fear is the consequence of needing to know the future in advance, which induces anxiety. Welcoming the unknown allows fear to dissipate.

This new perspective frees you to find meaning and purpose in your life as any moment can be full of new opportunities. Rather than seeing yourself as the victim of circumstances, you must rethink your life. No longer reduced to your past, to your constraints, you enter into the process of your becoming. Moving from an inert condition of being to a flowing process of becoming ushers in significance as every moment becomes alive with choices, free from fear. Living your life with significance is a great gift to yourself and all those you touch, as you develop a greater purpose in living.

 

Please check out my TEDx talk: Overcoming Anxiety 

Upcoming Online Workshops

 

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Embracing Uncertainty to Manifest Your Future

The pursuit of our personal change process often results in frustration and struggle. As much as we may fantasize new visions for our life, we tend to remain anchored in the familiarity of our life script. The question arises, “Why do we fail so often in our ability to make changes in our life?” My answer may surprise you, but it’s rooted in the way we think reality operates. The 17th century scientist Sir Isaac Newton postulated that the universe was like a giant machine, comprised of separate and discrete parts. He stated that with sufficient data one could reasonably calculate future conditions. This principle came to be known as determinism. And we live out our lives impacted by this “reality.”

The more that we try to know the future in advance, the more wed we become to certainty. If we need to know what will happen — what the consequences of our actions or inactions will be — the more fearful we become about entering into the flow of life. So we hold back and become frozen with apprehension as we analyze our choices. This is where fear resides. People who become addicted to these calculations often suffer from anxiety, as their thoughts perpetually analyze future consequences. Anxiety is directly correlated to our attachment to these fearful thoughts. This freezes us out of the change process as it robs us of our ability to craft a new tomorrow. 

An Uncertain Universe

In the early 20th century, the field of quantum physics discovered that the universe and reality itself is thoroughly uncertain. It now appears that uncertainty applies to our everyday lives as much as it does to the quantum realm. Paradoxically, this uncertainty should be seen as welcome news. How do I come to make this statement? Certainty or predictability precludes new possibility. If the future is already known in advance we lose the ability to truly be present. Uncertainty is necessary for new potentials to arise. The new science informs us that reality is inexorably unfolding and flowing, creating possibility in every instant.  We can join in this life-enhancing flow, if we simply let go of the compulsion to know an unknowable future. Doing this enables us to become free of our addiction to fearful thoughts.

Picture standing by the bank of a river and imagine that the river as the metaphorical flow of life. I am coaxing you to enter the river with me to engage this flow. Hesitantly, you agree. Yet, upon moving into the river you grab a hold of a boulder and try to hold back the river. I ask you to let go and embrace the flow. You look ahead and see a bend in the river and you protest, “but I can’t see where the river will take me, I need to know.”And so you block the current of life. You’re not supposed to know where it will go but you are free to navigate your direction as you go along. But you must enter into the flow of your life and the current of change.

Being stuck in determinism blocks us from becoming the author of our own life script.Yet, most people continue to avoid uncertainty at all costs with sad results. Our relationship with others and with ourselves becomes repetitive, rather like watching the movie Groundhog Day, in which the protagonist finally breaks free. The key to change lies in altering our relationship with uncertainty. Rather than trying to ward it off, embrace it. It’s the engine of your change process.Your resistance is about coming out of your familiar zone. You can’t elicit change and new possibility and remain in the familiar at the same time. You must chose.

 

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Living a Fear-Less Life

 

fearFear is a universal experience for virtually all of us. Perhaps there are a few exceptions to this rule, such as the Dalai Lama, but for the rest of us it’s part of life. The goal of living without any fear might be desirable, but somewhat naïve. What we should aim for is to reduce fear to its rightful place. Constant apprehension shouldn’t be a burden that we carry with us, day in and day out — moment in and moment out. So when I use the word fear-less I’m not proposing a life without fear, as that may be a stretch. But I am advocating living with less fear.

 

There are appropriate fears that are a warning signal that we are at risk and there’s something we need to pay attention to. If the road you’re driving on becomes icy, you want to be cautious. But you certainly don’t want to freeze up – as the road beneath you did. If you’re having chest pains it makes sense to seek assistance. If you’ve noticed you’ve gained weight and aren’t exercising, rather than fretting about your health, do something about it. If you’re noticing that your child isn’t thriving and feel afraid that there’s something wrong, seek help. You can choose not to let fear consume you.

 

There are some fears that go unspoken yet are common. One of three people will be eventually be diagnosed with cancer. Do many people feel apprehensive about this? Of course they do. That makes sense, but to carry a sense of dread around with you gets in your way of living well. Fears run a very wide range from apprehension about losing your job to not having enough savings to retire. From not be loved to having your lover leave you. From thinking others don’t like you to worrying about what you say and how you’ll be judged.

 

Changing your relationship with fear

For those who experience such excessive fears, there is a way out. Rather than focusing on the fear, look at your relationship with the worry. Fear, self-doubt and insecurity are not uncommon. But when you take these concerns and elevate them to the bull’s eye of your attention, you’re in trouble. You need to change your relationship with the fear. What do I mean by this curious statement?

 

Some people have a very strong affinity for fear; they actually seek it out. Their thoughts become habituated to looking for and focusing on what distresses them. So their minds develop a fixation as they paradoxically search for what causes them disharmony.When our thoughts perpetually attach to fear, it’s like carrying a lightening rod in a thunderstorm. What we look for we find. Anxiety is the consequence of our thoughts’ addictive relationship with fear.

 

 Fear doesn’t have a grip on you, but you have a grip on fear

The more you resist and try to ward off your fear, the larger it becomes. Think of it in the following way: What we resist we make more formidable. Imagine putting your arms out at full length in front of you as you try to hold back the fear. The irony is we actually embolden fear by trying to ward it off. Fear gets stronger when you resist it. Changing your relationship with fear means welcoming it in. Say to whatever is alarming you, “Come on in and let me have a look at you.” When we do this the fear tends to dissipate. Fear doesn’t have a grip on you, but you have a grip on fear. Loosen the grip. When you can see your relationship with the fear, you don’t have to become the fear.

In my next post I’ll be discussing how the need for certainty and our resistance to uncertainty contributes to our fears and anxiety.

 

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Breakthrough or Breakdown?

Breakthrough or Breakdown?

With rare exceptions, we seem to struggle in our desire to breakthrough. Yet, exactly what are we trying to breakthrough? Typically, it’s about our desire to change or to become unstuck. The groove of old thinking, feeling and the rut of old behavior become deeply embedded. The older that we get the more anxious we may become that we won’t be able to break free from the entrenchment of the familiar zone.

Somewhere beyond the limitations of the familiar lies the new terrain that we imagine we’d like to experience. This desired place may be specific or general, but it holds the promise of something that we yearn for. This is the promised land of the breakthrough.
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Order our of Chaos—Embracing Uncertainty

The words, order and chaos, are particularly value laden. We tend to embrace order and avoid chaos at all costs. I’ve come to wonder why that is so. And more to the point, what do we mean by order or chaos? Let’s start by examining what these terms suggest.

The notion of order is equivalent to a sense of predictability. Predictability in this form lets us know what we can expect. It speaks almost of a range of motion. A pendulum, unaffected by friction, will follow its predetermined path. We know just how far it will travel to either point in its arc before beginning its return. Predictability relies upon certainty and measurable outcomes. It has been a major tenet of our culture and our science since Newton introduced the motif of determinism in the 17th century. This range of predictable order is known as equilibrium.

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Uncertainty: Our Great Liberator

 

Certainty and predictability, the dominant motifs of Newton’s worldview are deeply rooted in our culture and in our thinking. These deterministic features are sought after and prized. We base our lives upon such predictability and they provide for most people a sense of comfort and security.

Ironically, this is not only a false security, but moreover a self-limiting philosophy that impoverishes our lives. Certainty dulls our life experience, for not knowing the result in advance begs us to be present and mindful.

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