What is Anxiety?
Episode 2 of the 7 Easy Steps to Resilience and Stress Management Series is an open public blog article on Anxiety.
Episode 2 of the 7 Easy Steps to Resilience and Stress Management Series is an open public blog article on anxiety.
The Science of Emotion and Feelings
To understand anxiety, we must first understand emotion.
Anxiety is fear of the future – it could be a near future or a distant future.
Fear is the most studied emotion because it's so fundamental. All vertebrates, including flies and spiders, show what appears to be a fear response.
I base my analysis mainly on the work of two great scientists of emotion, neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience. From their analyses, we can get a picture of the purpose of emotion and understand it better.
Antonio Damasio is a thought leader in neuroscience and feelings and emotion.
Damasio's hypothesis is accepted by many working in his field. He states that feelings and emotions come first. Thought, especially language, is built on top of emotions.
In summary, quoting Damasio. "We are not thinking beings that feel; we are feeling beings that think."
The Purpose of Emotion
The purpose of these feelings that we call emotions isn't just a motivator for our current behaviour but also future behaviour.
To explain this, I will use the typical example of meeting a bear in the woods.
So you're going for a walk in the woods, and you encounter a bear. When you see the bear, you turn round and run away. I'm not sure exactly what the right strategy is when encountering a bear, but I expect that is a typical response.
If you are asked what happened, you may say, "I was walking in the woods, saw a bear, became frightened, and ran away."
It certainly feels as though our emotions motivate our behaviour.
To understand this experience fully, I refer to the work of Joseph LeDoux.
LeDoux describes what he calls the low road and the high road. He is suggesting that we are getting two separate messages at the same time. The low road is our behaviour. The high road is an emotional signal.
This is how LeDoux describes emotion:
"Fear, anxiety, and other emotions are, in my view, just what people have always thought they were—conscious feelings. We often feel afraid while we freeze or flee in the presence of danger. But these are different consequences of threat detection—one is a conscious experience, and the other involves more fundamental processes that operate nonconsciously. The failure to distinguish the conscious experience of fear and anxiety from more basic unconscious processes, I argue, has led to much confusion." - LeDoux, Joseph. Anxious - Oneworld Publications.
LeDoux and Damasio refer to emotions as feelings, which is also how I describe them.
Emotion and Meditation
A great benefit of meditation is realising that thoughts and emotions are separate.
This isn't intellectual understanding; it's an intuitive realisation. The difference is that intuitive realisation is based on belief. If we hold a belief, we act on it as if it is true.
We are then in a situation where, as we meditate; we are also working with our emotions his feelings. From this foundation, we become familiar and comfortable enough with emotions that they no longer rule our lives.
Emotion enhances our experiences and confirms our learning. Intense experiences create intense emotions. Then the feeling related to the experience will often become more intense. This embeds intense experiences deep in our memory. We become better at recognising emotional experiences. We become motivated more to engage in or avoid them, depending on the sort of emotion that it generates.
This enhancement changes through repeated association.
If this happens in an uncomfortable experience, we become 'sensitised to the experience.
There is another possible response to repeated uncomfortable experiences. We may become more comfortable with them.
We call this 'habituation.'
Psychology uses habituation in a process known as exposure therapy. If our brain responds as though an event is fearful, we can relearn through small additional exposures to the experience that it isn't as difficult as we believe. Doing this reduces the fear that we have associated with the experience.
"The purpose of meditation is to become familiar with the mind" - Mingyur Rinpoche (World Leading Meditation Teacher).
The mind is thoughts and emotions. By sitting with our thoughts and feelings, intense anxiety can diminish.
This is one of the keys to meditation and is correctly known as acceptance.
"Acceptance is allowing yourself to feel however you feel in the present moment." - Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now - New World Library 2010)
Putting It All Together
This is the recipe for working with emotions in meditation through acceptance.
- We meditate regularly.
- We become more aware of our physiological state.
- We become more aware of our emotions as feelings.
- We become more familiar and comfortable with our emotions.
- The intensity of anxiety diminishes.
- We become calm, focused, and relaxed because we no longer try to avoid anxiety.
I have many podcasts with meditations designed to help us work with stress, anxiety, and worry.
You can find them here: