Friday, November 20, 2009


According to an article I saw recently in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, benzodiazapines, a class of medication that includes such well-known brand names as Valium and Xanax, are the most widely prescribed psychotropic drugs in the world. This leads me to the conclusion that there is currently a worldwide pandemic, not of some virulent strain of influenza, but of anxiety.

For me, anxiety has been a lifelong companion. He accompanied me to my first day of kindergarten, and took the form of intense fear of separation from my mother. He remains by my side right now, peering annoyingly over my shoulder at what I am writing, and doing his best to block my creative flow. I have tried many ways to get rid of him: through hypnosis, prayer, meditation, and medication, both prescribed and self-administered, including the dreaded benzos. Nothing has succeeded in banishing him for any length of time, so I have made my peace with him and stopped trying.

The one thing I know for sure about anxiety is that it is always future-based, meaning that it is the result of the mind predicting the outcome of a situation that is not happening now. An example of this would be standing in line to ride a roller coaster and feeling fear in anticipation of the ride. In this moment nothing is happening that is in the least bit dangerous, and yet, when we hear the sounds of the roller coaster on the track, and perhaps the screams of the riders, the old nervous system starts flooding the bloodstream with all those neat fight-or-flight chemicals. The hands sweat, the heart pounds, the ears ring, the respiration becomes more shallow, and the thoughts of doom present themselves in an instant.

I once heard an interview with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, in which he described sitting on top of the giant Saturn V rocket waiting for liftoff. This is a structure that was longer than a football field, and loaded with enough RP-1 fuel that it had the explosive power of a small atomic bomb. "People ask me," he said laughing, "weren't you afraid sitting up there? And I tell them, 'What was there to be afraid of? Nothing had happened, yet.' If something bad happened, then I'd have been afraid."

The antidote to fear and anxiety is to connect yourself fully to the reality of the present moment. Feel yourself sitting in your chair; feel your fingers touching the handle of your coffee cup (and while you're at it, actually taste the coffee); feel your body breathing in and out in this moment. Connecting to a present moment sensory reality has the almost magical effect of simultaneously allowing the anxiety to just be there without trying to get rid of it, and at the same time disengaging from it so that it will simply diminish or disappear on its own.

A poem fragment by Rumi (translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks):
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

1 comment:

  1. This quote from Rumi is inspiring and instructive. To me it says, "If you're anxious, Deb, don't keep trying to "figure it out. Take a walk, play the guitar, put on the headphones and listen to music." I know that this is what allows my deeper wisdom to take over and guide me.

    Your blog is wonderful, Roger. Thank you!