“I used to resent obstacles along the path, thinking, ‘If only that hadn’t happened life would be so good.’ Then I suddenly realized, life is the obstacles. There is no underlying path. Our role here is to get better at navigating those obstacles. I strive to find calm, measured responses and to see hindrances as a chance to problem-solve.” - Janna Levin
When I read this Janna Levin quote, I was reminded of a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Things are neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so.”
What these quotes boil down to are Expectation vs Reality and the filter of our preferred experiences. Obviously we would like to feel good more so than bad, but Shakespeare reminds us that “good” and “bad” are judgements we apply to solidify our sense of self, define our world, and understand our experiences.
I have noticed that when I encounter an unexpected obstacle, I'm usually left feeling anxious, which manifests in my body as tight shoulders, shallow breathing, and feeling like I need to crawl out of my skin. As a result, my mind tries to escape the discomfort in my body with excessive thinking. I’m usually in the middle of telling a self-referential story or inventing a conversation in my head when I notice that I’m overthinking.
After recognizing I’m disassociating with my immediate experience, I kindly remind myself to pause, take a deep breath, and return my attention to my body. I need to feel the sensations as they ebb and flow without commentary. It may be uncomfortable, but no feeling is permanent. The only way to process feelings is by gently holding your attention on your body sensations, which counterintuitively reduces the duration of the uncomfortable feelings. Simply put, feelings need to be felt.
The next time something unexpected happens or you find yourself escaping uncomfortable feelings in your body through overthinking, pause. Take some deep breaths, hold your attention on your body, and simply observe the sensations.
I use this technique with tasks that make me feel overwhelmed, like email (especially when Monday rolls around and my inbox has jumped to 50 plus emails). Before, I would feel overburdened and would put off the task in an attempt to avoid feeling uncomfortable. But avoiding only perpetuates the anxiety. So I need to having a working relationship with the anxious feeling, greeting it like an old friend. It also helps to create a comfortable space that makes the anxiety inducing task more enjoyable, like by lighting a candle, making a mug of tea, adjusting the lighting, putting on soothing background music, and setting a timer for 30 minutes and starting.
What has been making you feel anxious lately? Write it down. Accept that it makes you feel anxious and remind yourself that the feeling is not going to go away, but it will be reduced by taking some action. What is the first actionable task to complete the thing that makes you feel anxious? For instance, if you’ve been meaning to learn a new aria, you haven’t started yet, and it’s making you anxious, sit down and translate it. Set a timer for 30 minutes and when the timer goes off, decide if you want to stop or set another 30 minute timer. Either way, you have made progress towards completing the project, so recognize the micro-win!