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Is anxiety all in the mind?

When we are told that our anxiety (or anything else for that matter) is ‘all in the mind’ we have a tendency to get upset. To not feel heard, to feel like we have just been told that we are ‘crazy’, that it is our fault and we should just ‘get over it’.

I think we have Descartes to thank for this. A French philosopher in the 17th century who famously said ‘I think therefore I am’. This has created a very dominant view in Western society that there is a body and there is a mind, and that the two are somehow separate. Our belief that we should be able to be in control of our mind also has roots in this philosophy.

And as such, when we are told that something is ‘all in the mind’ we feel as if we failed at controlling our mind. That if we only try harder, we should be able to ‘get over it’. We blame ourselves, we feel ashamed. We feel the reality that society still treats the things that cannot be diagnosed in the body by a doctor as less ‘real’ than things that can.

This can make our route to transform anxiety even harder.

The bodymind

This distinction between body and mind feels very strange to me. It does not correspond at all with how I experience things. Things do not just happen in my mind or just in my body, they happen in my system. In my whole experience.

When I am overthinking things and worrying about how much work I have, I feel it in my body.

When I have a sensation in my body, I feel it in my mind.

Luckily, there are lots of philosophers (and many more) who have been thinking about this mind body situation, and debate is still ongoing. But we can also learn a lot from the ancient Buddhist texts about it. There the phrase ‘bodymind’ is coined. To indicate that we are not a body and a mind, but that, in fact, these are intertwined. They are one.

In our day and age, and with the fact that we have to deal with our Western society, the thing that I believe is critical to overcoming anxiety is to stop thinking about anxiety as something that happens either in the body or in the mind.

It happens in our system. And to overcome anxiety, we must take our system into account. Not just the mind. Not just the body. But us as a whole.

We can understand and overcome anxiety in our bodymind.

3 steps to using the bodymind to overcome anxiety

Using the bodymind to overcome anxiety means that you have to explore your bodymind first. Test it out for yourself. Does the bodymind fit your experience? You can explore this with sitting quietly for a few minutes a day and taking these three steps:

The first step is to actively put and keep your attention on your body. Notice how it talks to you, all the sensations, the vibrations, the aches and pains, the pleasures, everything.

The second step is to notice what happens in your mind when you sit quietly with your attention on your body. Does it have something to say about what is happening in the body? Is your mind judging the sensations? Is there a story that is triggered by an ache or a pain (For example: I have pain in my chest, I must be having a heart attack)? Is there a thought that actually provokes a body sensation?

The third step is to sense the emotions that arise as you sit here with your body sensations and your thoughts. What stories trigger anxiety? What sensations trigger stories? Does it go the other way around as well, do your emotions sit in your body?

See if you can do all this without reacting to what is happening, just observe.

Just a cautionary note: it is easy to fall into judgements when we do this exercise. Thinking that we cannot do it, that we are too distracted, that it is not helping etc. etc. etc. See if you can take an approach of curiosity to everything that is in your experience (including any judgement that might come up). Just imagine you are doing a scientific experiment and you are the impartial observer collecting the data.

Let me know how you get on via Instagram!