When I was growing up in Scotland, I must have seen more of the country than some historians. Since my mother had terrible anxiety when it came to flying, holidays abroad were left to the imagination, so I spent most of the school holidays within Scottish borders.
Years later, she eventually found the courage to fly to Spain and I was curious to know what had sparked this act of bravery. She told me, “I realised that, once you’re up in the air, there are only two ways you’re coming down: safely or otherwise. Either way, there’s no point in worrying.”
I found her response fascinating. I had expected something along the lines of, “Well, I’ve reached the point where I should face up to my fear”, but instead it was as though she had simply given up on believing in whatever her fear had been telling her all those years.
Pressing further, I wanted to know how such a flip could occur – how is it possible that an intense fear can suddenly be dismissed without a struggle. She replied, “Everyone has fears. There’s always something to be anxious about – but you have the choice to stop buying into it.”
Recently, I listened to a story of my Buddhist teacher, Ajahn Brahm, who recounted a tale from his days as a young monk in Thailand. On one occasion, he contracted malaria and was laid up in hospital when his teacher, Ajahn Chah, paid him a visit.
Seeing that his teacher had decided to come all the way from his monastery to check on him, Ajahn Brahm felt uplifted … but the feeling didn’t last long.
Upon reaching his bed, Ajahn Chah gave his student a quick teaching: “You will either get better or you won’t.” And with that, the visit had ended as soon as it had begun.
This week, I was contacted by a reader who revealed that they have been “suffering from regular episodes of mild anxiety” and asking how these feelings might be overcome. While not exactly crippling, the anxiety has created some discomfort. Upon reading their message, the aforementioned stories popped into my head as examples of ways to treat mild forms of anxiety.
As Ajahn Brahm explained, his teacher wasn’t being cruel in offering what appears on the surface to be an uncaring statement. Instead, he was pointing out the reality of the situation.
When we’re ill, we’ll either get better or we won’t … so why waste energy wondering about the “what ifs” in between?
Similarly, my mother had spent years thinking that she was safer on the ground than flying in an aeroplane – even though the odds of being in a plane crash are estimated to be one in 1.2 million, and the odds of dying in a plane crash around one in 11 million.
Comparatively, as a driver, she had a one in 5,000 chances of dying in a traffic accident, and as someone who enjoyed nature, the chances of a fatal bee sting sat at around one in 7,000.
When we experience anxiety, our minds catastrophise worst-case future scenarios and we get caught up in the most intense feelings of unease and fear.
In states of stress, we’re unable to think rationally about the reality of our situation, and so we expect the worst to happen.
Of course, since terrible incidents can and do occur, and because we live long enough to experience our fair share of troubles, anxiety is always on-hand to highlight the few times things have gone wrong, and so we focus on those as our feelings of unease grow in strength.
As someone who has experienced anxiety in the past (particularly with public speaking), I’ve found that one effective strategy is to consciously acknowledge the feelings and accept that they exist – nothing is bound to make anxiety worse than trying to deny or suppress it.
So before I’d give a talk, I’d say to myself, “OK, I’m feeling nervous and that’s normal – I want to do a good job. I have never done as badly as I expected, and so this will probably be no different.”
By having an open conversation any time mild anxiety arises, you shine a light on the fear and take away much of its power through your acceptance and recalling the fact that most of your anticipated sufferings have never come to pass.
Think about the fear of death, for example. It can really debilitate some people and yet, for the entirety of our lives, there is just a single day out of a possible tens of thousands on which we die. We might not know when that day is, but we are alive today, and have been for the thousands of days since we were born.
For much of the time, our life is pretty calm and uneventful. Our anxiety often arises through the dramatic stories we buy into about an unknown future.
When we choose to stop listening to those narratives, the anxiety loses its power. Sure, things could go wrong … but they usually turn out to be just fine in the end.