anxiety is a tactic

Panic is not just a symptom or malady but is also a tactic.  We use panic as a ground.  Panic in many cases is the experience of trying to use panic as a ground, something to hold onto.  It’s the state of trying to secure a ground that is itself the state of trying to secure a ground.  The reason for the bad feeling is that this isn’t a very effective tactic.  It just doesn’t work very well as a tactic for securing ground, so it feels crappy.  We call that crappy feeling anxiety or panic, and we think of it as something we want to get rid of, rather than as something we’re using, or trying to use.

If that explanation doesn’t suit, there is also the advice commonly given by Buddhist teachers, which is to stop trying to make your anxiety go away and just look at it.  Investigate the actual experience of anxiety, what does it feel like and where in the body does it happen.  Drop the story line around the cause of the anxiety, what you believe to be the cause.  Instead of “this anxiety is because I got in an car accident and I don’t know if I’m at fault and then I read an article about climate refugees,” go with “never mind how this happened, what does the anxiety feel like.”  Sit and look at it.

Looking at your anxiety tricks you momentarily into not trying to get rid of it.  In the moment that you’re trying to look at it, it would make no sense to try to make it go away.  You can’t do both.  If a fly landed on your arm and you wanted to get a good look at it, you wouldn’t start by swatting it away with your opposite hand.

Often, as soon as you stop trying to get rid of anxiety, as soon as you take a real interest in what it actually looks like, it dissipates.  As soon as you have a real attitude of curiosity about the bad feeling, it’s gone, or transformed into something more docile.  This can actually be disappointing!  If the anxiety does dissipate, that itself might give you insight into its insubstantial nature.  The structure of cause and effect may then seem not as solid as we thought.  This insight disrupts our typical understanding of anxiety as a mental illness.  We may have far less ownership of the affliction than we thought.  It’s not like a bug we carry around that might flare up at any moment.  It’s not quite ours to keep.