Anxiety: Quieting a Noisy, Troubled Mind

To look at Jude’s fingernails, you’d think she had an unfortunate disorder, something that affected nail growth and left only jagged bits of rough and misshapen keratin on the ends of her fingers. She chewed at them mercilessly when she thought no one was watching, and though she’d tried everything to quit what she believed was a disgusting habit, she’d never quite been able to stop. Whenever her girlfriend, Stacy, walked into the room, Jude jumped and sometimes snapped at Stacy, which felt confusing and irritating to both of them. Still, Jude panicked whenever Stacy left to go to the library or out for drinks with her graduate school friends—she was certain she’d become unbearable and that Stacy would soon leave her. At night, Jude found it impossible to sleep; she’d developed a case of unrelenting insomnia. She tossed and turned so badly that Stacy had banished her to the spare room, further amplifying her fears of abandonment. But her thoughts were a hamster wheel of more than just relationship ruin. She feared she was becoming too like her mother—a woman so absurdly neurotic that she was notorious in their small hometown. Jude feared financial demise; was this new career change the right move, or should she have remained in her safe job in marketing? She was the queen of colossal mistakes—surely this was no different. She’d begun to sweat so heavily that her palms were oily even the moment she stepped out of the shower. There wasn’t one over-the-counter antiperspirant on the market that could help her, not even the “clinical” kind. She’d taken to wearing only loose fitting dark clothing and never shaking hands; she knew she seemed like a morbid alien. Her head hurt all the time now. She tried to hide her growing unsteadiness, but she became like a garment when one thread finds its way out of the weave—she knew with a terrible certainty that any day now her entire life would begin to unravel.

Symptoms of Anxiety Disorder

The American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (IV-TR) lists six sets of criteria for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Here are some of them:

  • excessive worry and anxiety, and difficulty controlling it
  • restlessness and a feeling of being on edge
  • sleep disturbance
  • being easily fatigued
  • irritability
  • muscle tension
  • difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  • nausea, sweating, headache, and other somatic distress
  • life dysfunction or distress as a result of these physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety

Monkey Mind

In Daniel Smith’s funny and fascinating 2012 New York Times bestseller, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, he wrote: Anxiety is among the most common of psychological complaints, not only the clinical condition that applies to the most people (nearly three out of 10 Americans), but, it’s often said, a universal and insoluble feature of modern life. Everyone has it; everyone must deal with it. While the corollary to this is that everyone’s anxiety is different, shot through with idiosyncratic concerns and confusions, the experience is magnified by its painfully hermetic character. Anxiety compels a person to think, but it is the type of thinking that gives thinking a bad name: solipsistic, self-eviscerating, unremitting, vicious…I am anxious. The anxiety makes it impossible to concentrate. Because it is impossible to concentrate, I will make an unforgivable mistake at work. Because I will make an unforgivable mistake at work, I will be fired. Because I will be fired, I will not be able to pay my rent. Because I will not be able to pay my rent, I will be forced to have sex for money in an alley behind Fenway Park. Because I will be forced to have sex for money in an alley behind Fenway Park, I will contract HIV. Because I will contract HIV, I will develop full-blown AIDS. Because I will develop full-blown AIDS, I will die disgraced and alone.    The Buddha, or Gautama Buddha, was a man who lived around 2,500 years ago. Buddhists don’t regard him as a god or a messiah; rather they consider him a very wise teacher, or sage. One of the things he is believed to have spoken extensively about is the human mind. The Buddha crafted an analogy in which he described the mind as being filled with untamed monkeys. Imagine them springing and bounding wildly from one side of our minds to the other. The monkeys represent our thoughts or patterns of emotional reaction. If we become diffident or angry, the monkeys grow aggressive and increasingly louder, unrelenting. If we grow fearful, the monkeys grow fearful and shrieking. The noise in our minds becomes so loud that it is the only thing we can hear.

Overcoming Anxiety

Buddha taught that this “monkey mind” is a part of the suffering that exists for all beings, but that it can be eased through our own actions. We can learn to quiet it. One way, perhaps, is through the quiet embrace taught through the practice of meditation. Some find ways of quieting the too-loud voice of anxiety through body-mind practices like the ancient art of yoga, qigong and tai chi. These arts can be practiced in conjunction with Western psychiatry, if need be. What all of them have in common is that they help us to locate a place of peace and calm within our natures, and show us that this inner quiet, though sometimes slippery and a bit difficult to find, is actually always right there in the present moment, if we know how to look. There is no big secret. It doesn’t require hard work or tough questions. It simply is. Like many people, if not most, Jude did not have a grand revelation one night while spinning painfully in her mental wheel, or while writing frenzied cons in the column of dire possibilities she kept in a secret notebook. Instead, she simply grew too tired to keep going the way that she was. She went looking for help. It took some doing, but she found a good therapist and some good books and she began reading and choosing, not to “get out of her own head” or away from her terrible thoughts, that would be impossible, but instead, to change them. And slowly, she has.

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