Monday, December 23, 2013

Fear, anger, anxiety, and depression

I have written earlier about my struggle with anxiety which led me to meditation.  Even with regular meditation the anxiety has been been a constant battle, but at least I have the tools to recognize that the sensations in the body are those of anxiety and that they will pass.  It is not always easy to do this and there are times when it gets a bit overwhelming, but over time, I have been fortunate to see a reduction in those overwhelming moments.  I should say that even the ability to have a regular meditation practice is a blessing by itself because health does not always cooperate in this regard.

What prompted me to write about this topic is that these emotions appear to be all very interrelated.  I don't claim this as some sort of original thought.  It is just a documentation of my experience with it.  I am not qualified to give advice in this area and all of what I am writing may be incorrect.  Do your own research!

Lets start with fear.  Fear is built into us.  In fact, at a subconscious level we are aware that life will not last forever and we therefore try to cling on to "feel good" experiences.  This point was articulated in the first chapter of the book Mindfulness in Plain English.
Take any moment when you feel really fulfilled and examine it closely. Down under the joy, you will find that subtle, all-pervasive undercurrent of tension, that no matter how great the moment is, it is going to end. No matter how much you just gained, you are either going to lose some of it or spend the rest of your days guarding what you have got and scheming how to get more. And in the end, you are going to die. In the end, you lose everything. It is all transitory.
But because we don't understand the "root fear," instead we project that fear on to various situations in our lives (e.g. fear of being disliked or fear of future or certain phobias such as such fear of heights and so on).  Most books about anxiety talk about the fight or flight response which comes from a very primitive part of the brain, one that reacts much faster than the cognitive parts which process information.  Fear prepares the body for flight.

Which brings us to anger.  Anger is a close relative of fear.  It prepares us to fight.  Dig deep below the anger and there is almost certainly some type of fear (and as mentioned earlier, dig deeper into the fear and one finds that it is the fear of death that is really bothering us).  It triggers various biochemical reactions in the body to prepare us to fight.  We may act on our anger, which typically won't yield good results because reactive mind is at play and we are unable to think clearly in that situation.  Or we may suppress our anger, sometimes for years on end.  An interesting observation I have found to be true in my case is that when anger arises, I project it on to whatever is going through my mind at that time which may or may not be what is happening in that instant -- may be the traffic, may be a family member, could be a coworker, a store clerk or even the weather!  I am very adept at suppressing the anger (I have decades of practice), but that is not the correct way to deal with it.  Unbridled expression also does not appear to be the correct solution in this case as it only leads to escalating anger and confrontation that is not likely to result in anything productive.

Which brings us to anxiety.  Suppressing fear and anger over a long period of time creates excessive stress hormones in the body which are not given appropriate release, e.g. a punching bag or vigorous exercise might provide a reasonable outlet at a physical level.  Really these need to be addressed at an emotional level so we understand what is causing these emotions.  In my case, these unresolved emotions have been buried for decades.  But in the absence of that, eventually these will cause symptoms of anxiety and physical ailments associated with anxiety.  It throws the adrenals in overdrive and causes us to always be in a hurry.  This in turn causes a loss in energy levels.  It's like having a caffeine high which eventually leads to a crash.  Occasional anxiety is probably normal.  Anxiety that lasts weeks or months or years is a problem.  Physical discomfort and ailments only serve to make this worse.

Which brings us to depression.  The body can maintain the heightened energy levels in the anxious state only for so long.  Anxiety attacks that happen often enough lead to depression.  One might think that depression is the body's way of shutting down and trying to repair the damage done by the anxiety.  Unfortunately, when the energy levels recover, we go back to anxiety and we cycle back and forth between these states.  And thus we remain stuck in this vicious cycle.

What is the solution?

I haven't experienced it fully yet.  Vipassana meditation teaches us that we should never react to sensations, but just observe them.  I have found that useful, and I'm able to invoke it more and more with regular sustained practice, but yet have overwhelming moments.  Bhakti yoga instructs us to chant mantras if we notice we are in such a state.  Chanting immediately calms the mind.  I use this practice as well when I remember to do so and find it especially useful when the sensations are too overwhelming to simply observe.  A couple of other practices I have found useful are gratitude (life could always be worse) and forgiveness (both for others and for the self).

In all of these states (and actually several other states, but that is a topic for a different time), Vipassana teaches us that the breath will be altered.  Usually the breath will speed up but is very shallow or even stall when in these states.  Which is why remembering to take deep breaths is often cited as a remedy to deal with the mind that is stuck in one of these states.

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