The Compassionate Self-Witness and Anxiety – January 2013
It was three in the morning and something was wrong. My eyelids popped open to the sound of something scratching – a tearing at wood – the cat, trapped somewhere and trying to get out. I opened the doors along the hallway until Pickles dashed out on an unknown errand. Returning to bed, I discovered that sleep had fled, chased away by the adrenaline of sudden waking, and replaced by a series of urgent worries, small scenes of doom and disconnection, that were accompanied by the nagging, shameful sense that the greater something that was wrong was me.
Sometimes we can tell we are anxious from the burning in our belly or our solar plexus. But sometimes, if we are disconnected from our bodies, we can only tell we are anxious from the ceaseless cycle of thoughts about problems that need to be resolved, or a rehashing of possible scenarios for the future, all of which end badly.
During childhood we may take an outer world that is unsafe, ridiculously nonsensical and unpredictable, and internalize it as an embodied anticipation of what to expect from the rest of our life. Part of this is the brain’s capacity as a prediction machine, and part of this is that any emotional memory has a timeless quality, and if the emotional memory is linked with our sense of the world itself, then we can be eternally triggered to continue living in that past nonsensical world, which may bring feelings of anxiety, or shame, or unlivable pain.
There are many approaches to take to heal deep-seated anxiety. One option is to begin with the thoughts that are revealing our body’s pain and discomfort to us, and translate them with resonance. An effective way to capture resonance in words is with a sense of sacred curiosity, a wondering (as opposed to the desire to fix or reassure). This might sound like, “Sarah, I wonder if you are bewildered and overwhelmed, and longing for everyone you care about to be safe and well.” Then we listen carefully for the next thought, staying open to the changes in body sensation that will guide us to the resonance that our body needs. It did take me an hour to fall asleep again, but that hour was spent in caring, warm self-connection, rather than in berating myself for my worries.
Another approach is to bring this type of resonance to the self who originally experienced the world as unpredictable – to time travel with resonance, to wherever the sense of danger originated: it might be a year in our adult life; it might be a period in our childhood; it might be in our mother’s womb (as we experience her cycles of stress and relaxation, or lack thereof, as she lives them); it can even be a forever sense of self that stretches beyond the boundaries of life itself.
Although living with anxiety can be close to unbearable, the good news is that whenever we can feel our body’s emotional activation, we are in a neuroplastic (changeable) brain state, so as our experiences of receiving resonance become deeper and richer, our body begins to shift toward balance, well-being and ease.