By Patrick O’Neil
We are all living in stressful times. Over three hundred million Americans are sequestered inside their homes worried about their health, work, finances, and future. Meanwhile the number of people experiencing anxiety, stress, depression, and rampant substance abuse is reported to be at an all time high. The National Institute of Mental Health reveals that in a “normal” year, “An estimated 19.1% of U.S. adults” will struggle with an anxiety disorder, and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health states, “An estimated 17.3 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode”—a number that represents little over 7% of all the adults in America. And although it is too soon for current statistics, with the disruptive chaos generated by the coronavirus pandemic, the numbers are projected to be even higher than originally estimated.
Now, more than ever, in order to make it through this ordeal, Americans are seeking to make peace with their fears, anxiety, and depression. And while coping with stress is at the top of everyone’s “to do” list—not only for the sake of their mental health but also their physical wellbeing—whether they know it or not, many are also looking for some form of inner peace. As most practitioners of mediation can tell you, inner peace occurs when our mind, body, heart, and soul are at rest. If we are anxious, fearful, angry, frustrated, or confused our inner peace is severely compromised.
The good news is that most of us can and will find our own inner peace. The process may be difficult at times, some of us will need to try harder, but for the most part if we put in the work to resolve our preconceived ideas, inner conflicts, and unhealthy behaviors—we can at least begin to address the emotional struggles that plague us.
People say walking on water is a miracle, but to me walking peacefully on earth is the real miracle— Thich Nhat Hanh
Here are a few ideas and suggestion that can help:
Acceptance: The concept and application of acceptance is, at times, easier said than done. Letting go of the illusion of control, the outcome of everything outside our sphere of influence, and the past with all its emotional baggage can be daunting. But if we focus on something as simplistic as the serenity prayer we can find some clarification as to the part we really should be playing. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Now with this pandemic accepting “the things I cannot change” appears to work really well. But it’s actually “the wisdom to know the difference” where acceptance truly begins. Having acceptance for what we don’t want or like may be one of the most difficult things to achieve. But as Dr. Denise Fournier advises, “Where many of us get stuck is that we start out with a warped understanding of what acceptance is and how it works. We think that accepting something means getting over it. But this isn’t the case. It simply means being willing to acknowledge what is, without resisting or denying it.” The Coronavirus is here. It isn’t going to just meekly disappear overnight. Accepting that the quarantine and the ensuing financial fallout are part of our lives right now allows us a sense of relief that defying reality never will.
Mindfulness: Mindfulness is embracing the present instead of being stuck in the past or obsessing over the future. Although these days you’re probably wondering why you’d want to practice “mindfulness” if your present is living in fear of catching a virus and the monotony of quarantine. But our anxious thoughts and worries are exactly why we want to stay present and in the moment. No matter how unpleasant or stressful the present moment is… just say yes to it. Even if you resist, struggle, deny, or argue against what is happening—it is still not going away. Instead of trying to move away from your present situation, move towards it, and surrender to the moment. By practicing mindfulness and being present one can let go of the past and future and find inner peace in what is happening right now.
One Thing At A Time: This is a basic concept that can be incredibly helpful. We’ve probably all been overwhelmed by a dauntingly huge list of things to accomplish and instead of just tackling it we’ve been frozen with fear and done nothing. One of the simplest methods to dealing with seemingly insurmountable odds is to just do what’s in front of you and not worry about what comes after that. If you break anything down into smaller steps that are more easily accomplished, then the whole still gets done. “It’s all about taking it one step at a time,” writes the Anxiety Warrior, “Life isn’t a fairytale, which means sadly I can’t tell you that ‘everything will be OK tomorrow.’ If I did, I’d be lying and that isn’t fair. What I can say is challenge what you think. Start small.” In recovery there’s a saying, “Keep it simple.” Which translates into focusing on the smaller things in order to accomplish the big things. By practicing “one thing at a time” we can simply put one foot in front of the other, walk through our fears, and make it through these trying times.
Stress Management: Stress management is a variety of techniques and therapies for controlling one’s level of stress. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Your brain comes hard-wired with an alarm system for your protection. When your brain perceives a threat, it signals your body to release a burst of hormones that increase your heart rate and raise your blood pressure. This ‘fight-or-flight’ response fuels you to deal with the threat. Stress management gives you a range of tools to reset your alarm system.” The American Psychological Association suggests, “effective strategies for reducing stress responses include: maintaining a healthy social support network, engaging in regular physical exercise, and getting an adequate amount of sleep each night.” While all of these may seem too simple to work, the reality is that most of us do not utilize any of them, and we still wonder why our stress is through the roof. Another tool for stress management is having and maintaining a mediation practice. Wellness coach, author, and health educator Elizabeth Scott contends that, “Meditation affects the body in exactly the opposite ways that stress does—by triggering the body’s relaxation response. It restores the body to a calm state, helping the body repair itself and preventing new damage from the physical effects of stress.” Regularly practicing stress management can eliminate the immediate stress of today while also giving us the tools to face the stress of tomorrow.
Finding inner peace is a work in progress. But if you stay committed, practice these concepts, and implement a few stress management tools—then you are well on your way to effective anxiety treatment.