My journey from anxiety to serenity

Sufferers of anxiety disorder often let their disease get the best of them, but Pauline McKinnon dealt with her demons decisively

Half a lifetime has passed since one muggy summer’s day when I experienced my first panic attack. The following eight years found me withdrawing from existence out of fear of further panic attacks—and so I became a classic agoraphobic—or closer to the language of today, a victim of anxiety disorder. Most of that time I was plagued with feelings of insecurity and intense fear. Physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, dizziness, sensations of unreality, fear of loss of control... were my constant companions. Sleep brought no respite and each waking moment presented me with a minefield of frightening thoughts and soul-destroying obstacles to negotiate—either physically or emotionally.

For those eight years I retreated and succumbed to my fate. I also tried very hard through many ways, to overcome it. But for all my trying, the beast still pursued me. I felt alone and afraid. And then, after all those years of torture, miraculously, the light of day dawned. By chance, I came to learn that my trying very hard was a substantial part of the problem. At that time it was demonstrated to me that the secret to healing an emotional disease nestles within oneself. The power of creating order from disorder is within our own hands. But we need to be shown the way to achieve this.

Anxiety is universal

Anxiety as an emotional reaction is universal. Everyone experiences some anxiety. It is a natural, protective defence and can help us live. We need anxiety if for no other reason than to cross a busy road!

Some people though, due to sensitivity and personal conditioning, become overwhelmed by anxiety. Basically, anxious people have learned to disregard their true feelings, allowing themselves to be swept along through life while expending great energy and generating much nervous tension by ‘pretending everything is OK.’  This is a ripe situation for stress.

Stress is the difference between events that are occurring in our life and our ability to deal with them. What is stressful for one person may not be so for another. Something that is seen as a welcome challenge for one person may be a massive problem for the next. There is positive stress, the kind that has a motivating effect on people and there is negative stress  that emotionally undermines people. Often the apparently more major stressful events seem to be managed more effectively than the frequent minor stressful events of any given day. Overall, it seems that an accumulation of many negative stressful happenings will begin to cause more distress among certain people, amplifying anxiety symptoms, which can lead to the alarming experience of panic.

Fighting anxiety is a mistake

In a mistaken manner of controlling panic and symptoms, people begin to fight with increased tension. This is false control and consequently, people employ patterns in their behaviour which lead to avoidance, withdrawal, dependency upon others or obsessive tendencies—this strategy can severely affect a comfortable way of life. Thus, anxiety no longer serves the individual; the individual becomes the servant. Those who experience anxiety disorder have become subservient to their own defence—when this ought to be the other way around.

This was certainly my experience when I developed agoraphobia all those years ago. Agoraphobia is one form of false control said to be anxiety at its most severe. I believe it is.

In 1983, I first published my own story, In Stillness Conquer Fear, which intimates my understanding of anxiety problems. And so I became ‘the wounded healer’, working with others. In this work I have been privileged to hear the stories of many others. I have witnessed first hand the similarity between my own anxiety journey and that of others.  Fundamentally all are the same; the pattern is consistent. So the healing too will be consistent—provided you know what to do, and do it to allow the healing to happen. I view anxiety quite positively, as part of a philosophical search for peace and ‘wholeness’. My approach is based upon taking responsibility for one’s situation and making use of one’s natural strengths to find healing. To achieve this I offer my own version of the three R’s!

Rest

Anxious people, at some significant point in their life, have learned to believe that the best way to manage insecurity is to adopt an image that must be maintained by increasing nervous tension. This belief is common but never helpful. For in this way a fight begins—and when people fight against anxiety, they further increase their nervous tension. So people become stuck and exhausted on a treadmill of fear.

To break this cycle, the anxious person must truly rest. True rest involves learning to let go... of both physical and mental tension. True rest differs from sleeping or generally taking things quietly. By true rest I mean deeply resting the mind, letting go of all mental disturbance or logical intrusion. This kind of rest is best achieved in the particular form of meditative stillness. If help is available from a therapist who empathically understands the anxiety response and is also capable of facilitating the stillness experience, healing results will be hastened. Anxiety sufferers have spent much time and great energy in being keyed up, fighting, avoiding circumstances, withdrawing to safe places, becoming dependent and building up tension barriers. A veritable fortress has been built. And there are few people who can demolish a fortress without a little assistance from elsewhere!

When the practise of rest by this way of stillness is repeated over time, calmness replaces anxiety and gradually confidence is restored. It is simply not possible to be tranquil and anxious at the same time. So rest is fundamental to the healing of anxiety and in many cases, true rest alone is sufficient for anxiety symptoms to disappear.

Reassurance

In the process of healing, it’s important that people who fall prey to anxiety disorders are reassured by others of the inner strength that is typical of their nature—together with their other qualities such as courage, sensitivity and intelligence. While anxiety causes much self-doubt, it does not exclude personal ability. Having begun, through the practice of stillness, the anxiety sufferer now needs to test his ability to take true control. It’s also important for the anxious person to be reassured that he is loved and supported despite current difficulties.

It’s important too, that people with anxiety disorders learn to note—and then disregard—the ‘label’ which so often goes hand in hand with the diagnosis.

In the matter of reassurance for anxious people [or for most people in fact], one must not overlook the possibility of acknowledging the immanence of God. For some, this concept may mean Higher Power or Divine Energy or in general terms, cosmic consciousness. To achieve such faith attention to personal spiritual growth is required. The stillness of meditative practice is one major step in attaining spiritual growth and in generally learning to feel content with oneself.

Renewal

Through rest and reassurance, tranquillity replaces anxiety and personal renewal begins to unfold. People become mindful of caring more for their body through the introduction of new routines such as improved diet, exercise, recreational activities and new vocational paths. In particular, people begin to desire greater self understanding. Many people seeking freedom from anxiety embark on this part of the journey quite independently of external help other than the support of restful meditative stillness. But in many other cases, the assistance of wise counsel is necessary in sifting out the ‘why’ of anxiety—where the insecurity began, why the blocked feelings, why the need for tension and pretence, why the reluctance to truly control one’s life... what message the anxiety is trying to convey.

For, though the anxious person is experiencing anxiety and fearing loss of control, these are not true feelings; rather they are reactions to feelings. A sage once said “Feelings are our only true contact with reality” ...and this is an important point. Because, as already noted, anxious people are never really in touch with their feelings. Anxious people avoid true feelings and are merely in touch with their reactions to those feelings. They are only in touch with their helplessness.

This blocking or disregard of feelings amounts to the disregard of the existence of the self in all its authenticity... the unique spirit. In denying the very self, it’s little wonder that reactions of insecurity, pretence, lack of control and tension have taken place. Disregard of the self amounts to personal disappearance. Under such circumstances it’s not surprising that people become dependent upon objects or other people to provide a sense of their own existence!

On the other hand, when true feelings are allowed to be experienced, the reality of personal existence is validated. Self-validation provides security which then extinguishes anxiety. The more familiar people become with their own existence, the more their confidence builds and so too their communication with, and their consideration for, others improves. It becomes easier to recognise one’s own needs; it becomes easier to make personal choices and, in time, there will be no longer any need to ‘pretend’. A prudent counsellor can help people so that rather than continuing to avoid the richness of life they begin to change their beliefs about themselves, discover and accept their special qualities and learn to move forward to truly stand alone among others. Through this process of change, aloneness becomes independence, fragility grows to strength and inhibition transforms to self-expression.

Acceptance enables people to see themselves and their lives in truth—with body, mind and spirit more peacefully integrated—encompassing natural beauty, giftedness and value. Once-anxious, fear-filled people now discover the joy of calm inner security, better relationships and as much personal freedom as a human being can ever expect to experience! Clearly, anxiety can be a good servant, providing its message is properly heeded.

This was first published in the August 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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