The ancient Stoics believed that we suffer more from imagination than from reality. But these days, even our imagination could not have conceived of all that has happened in recent years. There is plenty to be anxious about.
Anxiety disorders are common, can be serious, but they are ultimately treatable. Anxiety is not a choice. It is our body’s natural response to stress and it does not matter whether that stress is real or perceived. Stress is stress.
Here are my seven simple antidotes to help you deal with your pain and anxiety.
Do not romanticize your anxiety
Identify the causes of your stress, don’t mythologize or politicize it. If you are dealing with financial problems or an abusive relationship, do not make it about the Israeli occupation or global warming, or some other existential crisis because you need an apocalyptic cause to explain the terrible anguish and pain you are experiencing.
While it is understandable to do this, it’s not honest and it is potentially dangerous. Intense emotional stress that feels disconnected from an honest narrative can lead to delusional thinking. Do not overly romanticize hardship. Do not allow it to define you as a victim or a hero. Remember that whatever narratives you craft about your pain should be an exercise in creativity, not courage. We are trying to cope not conquer.
There is no sin in coping
Be human and blow off some steam. Complain, vent, cry and make mistakes. Many people regulate their unpredictable lives by trying to be perfect. It gives them a sense of control. But perfection is a pathology.
“Perfect people,” don’t allow themselves the luxury of emotions because feelings get in the way of productivity, and so, they suppress their emotions. It’s the only way they can pummel through life like sociopaths obliterating obstacles and people who get in their way.
Recognize that there is no sin in coping, unless sinning is how you cope, in which case- forgive yourself. Remember that God is more forgiving than you, your family, or society. He will always forgive you as long as you remain connected to him, even superficially.
Shrink your Circle of Concern
Temporarily block out the things that are not part of your immediate life, like the news, your distant relatives, next month’s bills, etc.. Deal with the immediate concrete reality or crisis, and take some action. Action can diminish anxiety, sometimes instantly.
If you have no immediate crisis or major strains in life but are still suffering, then look to your past. The notion that letting go of the past is curative is misleading. Identity is a function of memory. The things we bury often come up during the most peaceful times in our lives demanding to be addressed and acknowledged, preferably while under the care of a licensed professional. If seeing a therapist is not an option for you right now, then try number four.
Don’t deny your emotions, just freeze them
Not all stress and pain, past or present can be dealt with all at once or dealt with at all. Sometimes our lives are so hectic and demanding that we cannot afford to confront, let alone acknowledge it. When this happens put your pain in a box and store it in the freezer section of your mind. You are already doing this unconsciously. Start doing this consciously. Simply imagine a room in your mind with limited shelf space to hold all your boxed emotions
This mental exercise will allow you to process your pain in small doses. When you have the energy or a little breathing room, or if you are out of control and start acting in irrational and inexplicable ways, then you know it’s time to take down one box at a time and allow it to thaw out, until you can see what’s inside.
One way to do this is to keep a journal. Journaling is an extremely effective way to process your emotions, provided that you are uncensored and unedited and don’t hold back. Write it all down. Don’t be afraid of memorializing the worst parts of your life. No one needs to read it, not even you.
Some virtues can ruin your life
It is not always about how hard you work if what you are doing is hardly working. Sometimes we have to let go of people and circumstances that refuse to yield to our efforts. You do not need to orchestrate a dramatic ending. Certain things have to die a natural death by default. Bad jobs, relationships, your domestic aspirations.
Just stop investing energy into something because of some virtue you think you ought to have like perseverance or duty. Some virtues can ruin your life. Know the difference between giving up and growing up.
Practice social distancing
We are so keen on keeping away from people who might infect us with a virus, but we think nothing of sharing space or bread with people who are determined to rob us of our mental health.
We all intuitively understand what it means to be around toxic people. Keep your distance from them, not just physically but virtually as well.
Of course, sometimes we are not able to create physical, let alone psychological distance, between us and those we deem toxic, especially if they are family members. If that is the case, then proceed with caution and prioritize your mental health over your sense of duty.
Find a constant in the constantly changing
One way that anxiety manifests itself is through obsessive-compulsive ritualistic thoughts or behaviors. Ritual is one way that we cope with anxiety. For many people engaging in ritualistic behaviors provides a sense of control and reduces anxiety. Rituals that have no practical outcome only a spiritual one, are immune to the ups and downs of practical reality, which is why they give us a sense of security.
We need rituals in times of stress, so if you are tempted to go all OCD about something then get fastidious about your spiritual practice, whatever it is. Spiritual practice allows you to have a constant in the constantly changing.
While in the midst of your panic and anxiety you may believe that God has forsaken you. You may feel that hardships only undermine your faith and that you will not be able to yield any spiritual blessings from them. But you don’t need to feign stoicism or spiritual growth, just because you are going through a hard time. You do not need to be anything but human. Everything in life is a tradeoff and your suffering will never in vain.
* A version of this article was first published on aboutislam.net