How to overcome anxiety

[Update Mar 23 2020: Hello everyone. Here is some Buddhist meditation advice on dealing with anxiety during these uncertain times.

Please check out an increasing number of live-streaming meditation classes at a Kadampa Center near you — learning to meditate or increasing your meditation practice will really help! Anyone can learn. All you need is somewhere to sit quietly for a while, and a wish to experience inner calm. Then just follow along.]

Sometimes dubbed “the age of anxiety”, people are reportedly experiencing a lot of (di)stress in this modern age. Up to a third of the UK population, for example, will suffer from anxiety disorder or panic attacks at some point; and more people go to the doctor be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battlefor anxiety in the UK than for the common cold. In the US, 40 million people are suffering from anxiety disorders, where anxiety is constant and overwhelming; and as for the occasional bout of panic, or the grumbling day-to-day unease, the number is probably closer to 300 million! I didn’t do a survey on the rest of the world, but I can’t imagine it’s much better.

So, can you relate to any of these?:

You’ve got a big meeting at work coming up where you have to give a presentation. You have to see your family and have a conflict with a family member who’ll be there. You know you’re going to run into your ex-girlfriend, who is with someone new whereas you are not. You see a police car in your rear view mirror, and you are a person of color. You have discovered a bump on your body and a quick Google search reveals that death is imminent. Your prostate is ten times larger than it should be. Your tent is leaking. You have to leave home soon because you are approaching adulthood but the future is scary. You are getting old and find yourself worrying about the smallest things that never used to bother you. Your co-worker is AWOL (again), leaving you with no support. You can’t understand why you don’t feel happier. You’ve eaten too much chocolate and have to go dress shopping with your mother, who is stick thin and always on at you about your weight. Your dog is sick. Your daughter is on drugs and possibly in trouble with the police. You can’t afford to leave a monotonous job even though your boss is a psychopath. You might be losing your Obamacare soon. You’ve read some very disturbing articles recently about the forces of darkness descending on our world. Your car has a rattle. You can’t make up your mind whether to (a) go grey gracefully or (b) go blonde. You’ve just spilled coffee all over your iPhone while writing this, with splashes landing on your keyboard (that one’s mine.) You’re going to die.

Written down like this, does this seem like a list of anxiety-provoking situations?! Yet these are just snippets from the most recent conversations with the people around me. It makes me wonder, how much of our daily chit chat does revolve around things that make us anxious? Anyway, you may have more to add. And, while we have a mind to worry, the list is potentially endless for each of us. (At least we’re not alone?!) defines anxiety as: Distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune.

It doesn’t matter whether fears or misfortunes are real or imagined, large or small — they all seem to consume us. With anxiety we can’t help overthinking, so there is no objective scale, you can’t number worries from 1 to 10 — worries never seem small because they each fill our mind.

What does anxiety feel like?

It can feel like we’re going mad, at its worst. We worry about everything and nothing. We feel out of control. The voice in our head is constant, we can’t stop it, it’s exhausting. We are on edge. Life is no fun. We can get no perspective even when we know we have things out of proportion and other people have it far worse.

AngelThere was a swan, Angel, in the small pond behind my caravan last week in the Lake District. Beautiful to watch on the surface, gliding around like swans do – but she was all alone, recuperating from an attack that killed her mate; and I felt sad for her. And, looking at her legs, I was reminded of a description I read of anxiety:

I smile gently while churning inside. I may seem calm. But if you could peer beneath the surface, you would see that I’m like a duck – paddling, paddling, paddling.

What makes us anxious?

There is always something to worry about if we have a tendency to worry: “What is there to worry about today?!”

Did you wake up happy this morning?!

Often when I ask people this question, they stoddlers 1ay they didn’t, not really. We are not even out of our warm cosy bed yet — nothing has happened! – and yet already we are feeling uneasy. So sometimes anxiety can be generalized, sort of random, lurking just below the surface of even the most uneventful day, with no specific cause. We usually cast around outside for something to blame for this feeling, “Must be because I have a presentation at work coming up in 3 weeks!” We can even lie there worrying that there is nothing to worry about, which must mean something horrendous is about to happen…

At other times we feel anxiety about something in particular, such as in the list above.

Luckily, although anxiety is a bad habit, all habits can be broken.

What can we do about anxiety?

Soooo, what is the secret of keeping it together in the face of worrying situations? Why and how do some people just seem to roll with the punches, while others are tormented by crippling anxiety at the merest glimpse of potential trouble? How do we rid ourselves of anxiety and connect with a more peaceful, balanced part of ourselves?

First off, we need to start to experience some genuine peace of mind in which we can take refuge. Then we can gradually come to understand the causes of anxiety in more depth, learning tools to train in during our lives that will help us overcome this crippling emotion for good.

Buddhist meditation can give us all of this.

anxiety girl

By the way, if you have concluded that meditation is not for you because you are just too distracted and worried to be able to concentrate, please know that pretty much everyone starts off too distracted and worried to concentrate. And this is exactly WHY we have to learn to meditate. Meditation is the medicine for distraction and distress. Not taking it is like saying:

“I am too sad to be happy.”

(Or as someone just said on Facebook “Actually, not meditating because it’s too hard is like saying “I’m too sad to take my Prozac.”)

Our uncontrolled mind is in a state of apparent chaos, lurching from one chaotic situation to another; we feel caught in that small space. But if we can step back and see what is arising from a bigger place, we can realize the bigger story. We can step back and then CREATE the bigger story.

So the first thing to do is to allow our mind to just settle, relax, and get bigger. Our mind is naturally peaceful, as explained here – our problem is that we keep shaking our mind up with uncontrolled thoughts, rather like a clear mountain lake being churned up by speedboats. Let the mind just settle through breathing meditation and we’ll discover that we already have peace, lucidity, and calm within.

Worries fill our mind, so we need to empty our mind, for a while at least. Things feel less overwhelming in that space. We realize we can cope. We realize we can feel good. Anxiety, as they say, is a misuse of the imagination. We realize we can think differently.

There are inner and outer problems, as explained here. I was thinking how each of those outer problems listed above requires different advice and solutions – the car may need to go to the mender, you may be able to enlist other people to help you with your work, your friends may have good suggestions on your hair, or you may be able to do something proactive to help prevent the forces of darkness from descending on our world. But internally, the advice is similar – control our mind and replace the anxious thoughts with helpful ones.

self-cherishing 3Breathing meditation is increasingly popular because it really helps people relax. Even a small amount of time and effort can yield surprisingly big results. The breath may not be the most profound object, but this meditation teaches us something profound – that we don’t need to add peace from outside, it is already there inside us. If we allow our inner problems to temporarily subside by taking our attention away from them by single-pointed focus on the breath, our natural peace comes to the surface. And we can know that even if it is only a little bit of peace to begin with, (a) it feels so much better than anxiety and (b) there is plenty more where that came from. Phew.

Plus we now have some space, control, and perspective to deal with the outer problems, as needs be.

You can find out how to get started in a breathing meditation here. And there may be meditation classes in your area if you check this link.

We’re out of space, so I’ll explain more next time. Meanwhile your comments are welcome.

Related articles

Don’t worry, be happy

Getting perspective on hurt feelings

Ever had self-loathing?

How do I get rid of problems?

How to avoid stress and burn-out at work

Problem-free days

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

18 thoughts on “How to overcome anxiety”

  1. Reblogged this on Family Furore and commented:
    This is such a great article that struck a chord with me when I first read it last year, and still does today. This is one to keep so I can re-read whenever I need.

  2. I have agoraphobia. I feel terrorfied and have strong self-grasping. On top of this, I feel people stare at me. I do tend to stand out in a crowd for a number of reasons, one being I am unusual looking & I have a strong presence. On top of this is judgemental commentary stating how stupid I am for being so fearful. I cannot just accept the feeling of intense vulnerability.

    1. It is probably hard to deal with this once you’re out and about and surrounded — this may take some cushion time.

      The first thing to address, i think, is the judgemental commentary because you are self-aware enough to know you are doing it. Before you go outside, would it help to go for refuge to Guru Buddha and spend some time seeing yourself as he sees you rather than as your delusion does? Experience the peace of blessings. Remembering that your delusion of self-grasping fear is not you a cloud arising in your vast sky mind? And then have Buddha Tara in your heart when you go out …

      We all have some delusion that is stronger than others to challenge us. “Purify your greatest delusion first”, as it says in the Lojong teachings, which means looking at this over a period of time in meditation, but in the context of identifying with your potential not your delusion. Purification practice targeting this fear would also help.

      lots of love x

  3. I did a 4 week retreat at home doing breathing meditation at least 3 times a day and completely cut out all other normal distractions (T.V,music,visiting etc).I can state categorically that IT WORKS from personal experience.It neither excites nor depresses the mind but leaves it much more clear and surprisingly tranquil.Its like getting into a fragrant bath when you have got very dirty and coming out refreshed and clean.Of course,our minds keep getting ‘dirty’ with our myriad distracting thoughts and my mind did not retain this clarity for very long but it showed me how beneficial ( and meaningful) this simple method is for my ‘mental health’.I know busy people may not have the time to commit like I did but no matter how little free time you have its worth investing in a method that actually works,with no bad side effects .Thank you Luna.Great article to share xxx

  4. Hi there,

    I was wondering if I could put this article on my website? I write about my experiences with mental illness and this article really struck a cord with me. I’d love to have it as a guest article on my site as I think others would benefit from reading it as well.

    I’ve been diagnosed with depression and PTSD, but the worry about every single thing describes me perfectly at the moment. It’s so funny how things come to us when we need them most.

    Warm regards



      1. Hey Luna, I was also wondering of you could please remove my surname, address and phone number. That must’ve come through the email I sent as I would never publish my personal details like that! Many thanks.

  5. I had a big episode of intense anxiety and tried many things. I want to share what worked.

    My anxiety was such that I was having constant pangs of terror. I was afraid of heights, tall buildings, being alive, dying, open space, being on a planet, the universe, health problems, living alone, financial security, people, unemployment, getting old..I was terrified of being a human being and having a human body. The panic attacks were relentless for 6 months. I tried panic away, sertraline, CBT, talking to friends, hugging people for ages. I often lay in my bed crippled with absolute terror. During those moments I tried something that worked and Im now bringing it into my meditations.

    I am just a person, sat in a chair, thinking.

    As soon as I said this I became just a person sat in a chair. I would say where is the problem, the danger etc? Im just a person sat in a chair. Nothing else is happening. Over and over again.

    The nightmare I was in subsided. It disappeared like a dream. All the horrible things vanished & I felt hope. Power. That I wasnt powerless. That I could get out of the nightmare or get a break from it.

    This nightmare looms and grows in power because I dont see it as thoughts I see it as real. For example at the moment Ive just come back from 2 hours voluntary work in an office. I think the manager there doesnt value me & sees me as incompetent. I then concluded that many other people wont value me. I travelled home in a twisted gloomy nightmare that was real. That was solid. That I couldnt change. That was the truth, inherently, from its own side. The Dharma really does oppose this and its the only truely effective opposition. We can argue with these complex concrete worlds we live in but it will get us nowhere. I could argue that old age will not be painful, that solitude can be pleasant, but its honestly unconvincing. I could even try to impute a happy solitude as an old woman but Im missing the point. I need to realise that I am not at the mercy of this world, I dont have to be crushed by concrete or spend my life fighting through a concrete maze that in truth has no exit.

    I just need to step back & look at what is happening. Then I will see that I am writing the story. Just like when we wake we realise it was a dream. I just need a moment of not dreaming…then I will understand and the despair will start to melt away.

  6. Breathing meditation works for my anxiety! Also just imagining Buddha and sitting with them is helpful, just feeling their presence. I also like the meditation on the mind being like a clear blue sky. Then throughout my day I can focus on mantra and positive thoughts. All of these have helped me so much!

  7. Hi Luna 😂
    Oh I giggled all through your post, not at anyone’s misfortune, but at the list, 🤔 Endless conditions …..
    I think It stems back to my mums words … there is always someone worse off than me, her motto in life no matter what she is facing 😊
    I also like … when the going gets tough – the tough get going – green Tara swift in action … just as the wind blows ….
    it reminds me of my garden shed, it gets cluttered and every now and then it gets sorted out Allowing room to move with ease 😊
    Everything still there just much more organised, if we sort it out, then we have clarity with peace to sit in our shed and hide with our tea (just kidding about hiding with the tea lol)

  8. Again, such a brilliant post, thank you Luna! I would definitely say for the majority of new people turning up at a meditation class, this is enemy number one.
    In a way I have to thank my anxiety, because it brought me to dharma. Suffering has good qualities! Reading Geshe la’s words on the vast difference between saying ‘I’m anxious’ and ‘unpleasant feelings are arising in my mind’ was such a revelation. Do you know if Geshe la has ever given a definition of Anxiety?

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