What to Do When You Feel Anxious (Brief Reflection and Practice)

I would like you to imagine that you are walking in the woods, and you come to a stream. The water is low, and you want to cross to the other side. Luckily for you, there is a path of stepping stones across the stream that can take you safely to the other side, so you decide to cross.

Imagine now that you are stepping on the stones to cross the stream. What do you focus on? Notice how you focus on the stone that you are stepping on right now. And then once your foot is firmly and safely planted, you focus on the stone that you are going to step on next. You do this because when you focus your attention on the stone you are on now, you have a lot of wisdom at your disposal. You know what the stone you are on feels like, how slippery it is, and how you need to balance to stay safe. As you focus on the stone you are about to step on next, you know how far out it is, how high it is, whether it is wet or dry. By focusing on one stepping stone at a time, you gain helpful knowledge that allows you step safely onto the next stone.

brook and sunlight

Now imagine that instead of focusing on the stone right in front of you, you start focusing on the stone at the end of the path. You start wondering how it will feel and how you are going to balance on it. If you start focusing all of your attention on the stone at the end of the path rather than the stone you are on now, there is a good chance you are going to slip and fall into the water. Notice that you do not need to focus on the stone at the end of the path until you get there. You do not need to know how high it is or how you will balance on it now because you will figure it out when you get to that stone. All you need to focus on right now is the stone you are currently stepping on.

This is how life is. Life is a series of stepping stones, and you only need to take one step at a time. When you focus on the step you are on, you gain the exact kind of wisdom you need to help you handle that step well. Then, when it is time to move onto the next step, you can focus on that, and you will have the knowledge and resources you need to handle the place you are. You do not have to figure out how you will handle steps ten years, ten weeks, or even ten days from now (or even ten minutes). When we do this, we start to get anxious about stuff we cannot possibly know, and we are likely to slip and “fall into  the water”. (For example, we have an anxiety attack or make ourselves sick.) When you are anxious, focus on this step right now. You will know how to handle steps in the future when you get there, and the more you focus on this moment right now, the more resources you build that  you will eventually use when you need them.

When you feel anxious today, here is something to help you:

  1. Say to yourself, “I am focusing on this step. I have everything I need right now for this moment.”
  2. Sit or lie down and pay attention to your breathing. Breathe in, imagining that you are breathing in wisdom. Breath out, imagining you are breathing out fear.

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