Emotions. They’re hallmarks of being human (and, as recent studies suggest, they may also be shared among other species as well!). We’re connected to one another through shared experiences of sadness, happiness, excitement, fear, and other nuanced feelings. Yet through the centuries, root triggers for our emotions have shifted considerably.
Let’s say, for instance, that you lived a million years ago in the Paleolithic era. What may have caused you anxiety or fear ten thousand years ago would have had nothing to do with traffic, street crime, or that constant stream of terror-inducing news we’re all privy to. Back then, if you were foraging for berries along the river with your young child, you might keep one eye on the thick brush in case a predator happened to be watching.
And if a leopard did suddenly spring for your child, that “fight or flight” response (a.k.a. acute stress response) would instantly flip on. Your heart rate would quicken. Adrenaline and other hormones would flood your system. Your liver would release glucose, honing your focus and response time. As a result, you’d make a series of split-second decisions around whether to run or to stay and fight. And once the threat was over, your body would return to normal.
These days, our threats come in more sizes, shapes, and levels of immediacy. The complexities of life often manifest in fears and stresses of the slow-drip variety. Enter anxiety!
A recent study by the American Psychological Association reported that nearly 80% of people report feeling some level of anxiety. And where does it come from? Almost everywhere, apparently. We ruminate over decisions. We worry about our children. We get caught on something we did or didn’t say or do. And while we may luxuriate in our freedoms, here’s a newsflash: there IS such a thing as too much choice! (Think streaming options, brands of cereal, and even options to swipe on dating apps.) Psychiatrist Zbigniew Lipowski calls the influx of options a “veritable vicious cycle” of anxiety because even after we make a choice, we’re left anxious in wondering whether we chose the right one!
Add to this those invisible threats in the daily headlines, from terrorists to ecological catastrophes to unrest, we don’t see the millions and billions of positive things happening every moment of every day! No wonder we imagine dreadful outcomes and then ruminate on them.
And so, in lieu of that full-body, instantaneous fight-or-flight reaction, we experience the less intense but more sustained effects that come with internal dissonance. Sometimes anxiety manifests as that slight tug that we try to ignore, but that keeps on pulling at the sides of our thoughts. At other times, it comes in like a tornado, dizzying enough to sideline our ability to function productively. We may lose sleep. Or overeat. Or turn to escapism through substances or other addictions.
Our body will feel it, too–manifesting in digestive issues, headaches, or more serious conditions. (Note: if you or someone you love experiences anxiety that manifests in potentially harmful symptoms, please seek the care of a medical professional!) In other words, ignoring our anxiety can, over time, negatively impact every aspect of our lives.
But anxiety, like other emotions, can also be a valuable wake-up call to our soul, telling us that something needs addressing, changing, or letting go.
Kabbalah teaches that emotions are some of our most trusted messengers. And they deserve our full attention! In fact, if we consciously choose to face our worries, stresses, and anxieties head-on and make the changes they’re asking us to make, we can experience tremendous growth and transformation.
The biggest challenge? Emotions don’t speak to us in words. And decoding our feelings can feel much like translating a foreign language, unless we’re willing to put in some real effort. We have to meet our anxiety halfway. Dr. Alicia Clark, psychologist and author of Hack Your Anxiety, writes, “Becoming aware of our anxiety, and consciously naming it, is how we activate our thinking and take control over what we do with it.”
Here are a few ways to start that process:
- Write in a journal. Allow yourself to express what is bothering you, and see if you can write your way to an answer!
- Meditate. Sometimes the way to an answer is as simple as clearing away the noise enough so that you can “hear” it.
- Practice Self-Talk. Have a conversation with yourself (mirror optional!). Just put it out there: What’s at the heart of this anxious feeling? Be kind to yourself, and maybe the face in the mirror will tell you something new!
- Take a walk, or pursue a contemplative activity. Sometimes even digging in the garden can help excavate parts of ourselves that we’ve kept beneath the surface.
Once the answers start manifesting, the next step takes courage. Change can be scary–and, in truth, we may make mistakes or have setbacks along the way. That’s how we grow! But no matter what stories you’ve had playing on repeat through your mind, this is the time to face them head-on, believe in yourself above all, and…
● Commit to taking action!
Is your “off” feeling telling you to start looking for a new job? To schedule a heart-to-heart to clear the air with a friend? Is there an unfinished task that’s been weighing on you? Whatever it is, heed the call to act and set out a specific and purposeful course for addressing the source of the anxiety.
Be persistent (not resistant) and resolve to solve! Remember, measurable change takes energy from the inside out. My husband, kabbalist Michael Berg, shares that the way we THINK about things will determine “how we are either going to expand the borders of Light or expand the borders of darkness.” We can let our anxiety fester, or we can meet it, greet it, and let it lead us onward and upward!
With a mind as clear as a glorious summer day spent picking berries by the river.