Wise Words on Anxiety

This week, my wonderful aunt sent my sister and I this resource, Psychological First Aid for Frontline Health Care Providers. I decided to take a quick peek, even though I didn’t really think I needed it. After all, I was “fine”! Holy man was I wrong. I did not realize how much I needed to go through the workbook – I suddenly felt understood and refreshed.

The above resource helped me realize how important it is to prioritize my mental health. In addition to seeking out resources, I need to continue to exercise, eat well, and maintain meaningful relationships by reaching out to others. But the biggest thing of all that I have now been “trying” to do (some days more successfully than others) is have empathy for myself and cut myself some slack. To know it’s ok that some days I feel angry, some days worried, and some days happy and proud. It is a roller coaster and we are all just doing our best to navigate these uncharted waters.

At a time when it is easy for all of our worries to run amuck, I wanted to share some other wise words on managing anxiety that have helped me. Below are pieces I have come across that I have saved to come back to – I hope these resonate with you like they did with me. It’s interesting that the passages that stuck with me most are from all difference sources. Some are by medical professionals and academics, some are by authors or an account of a personal experience. I find them all helpful in different ways.

From: Psychological First Aid For Frontline Health Care Providers: A Quick Guide to Wellness – by Dr. Mélanie Joanisse

The Boat: Imagine that life is a journey on the ocean and you are the boat. Most of us spend our lives trying to control the waves. Unfortunately, while being quite compelling, this exercise is futile. We do not control the waves to come (size or frequency). If we spend most of our energy trying to prevent the waves from coming, we can get exhausted and disappointed. We become resentful when we compare ourselves to others who appear to have a calmer ocean to navigate or feel ashamed of ourselves for struggling with tidal waves. What I am proposing is not to become hopeless and defeated about the lack of control we have over the waves but to redirect our attention and energy towards the boat. You see, in this quest to control the ocean, most of us have forgotten to take care of our boats.
If you nurture your ship and invite others to join you on your journey, then when you hit a wave head on (not if, but when), you have a fighting chance to get through it, bounce back and potentially grow from the experience.

The Buddha and Mara: I am not a Buddhist and Dr. Tara Brach explains this much better than me, but here is the main take away from the story. Mara, the Demon God, tried to prevent Buddha from reaching enlightenment. He pulled out all the stops (greed, jealousy, lust). Mara was not afraid to play dirty. Despite his efforts, he was unsuccessful and the Buddha found enlightenment. This defeat did not deter him from coming back from time to time to tease or distract Buddha. Buddha’s allies pleaded with him to banish Mara or fight back, but in his infinite wisdom, the Buddha would only say: I see you Mara. Eventually, he even invited Mara to tea as a welcomed guest. Interestingly, Mara continued to come, have tea, but would not overextend his stay, allowing the Buddha to continue on his journey.

This story captures the essence of acceptance of all of our inner experience (radical acceptance). Nonetheless, I particularly like it for helping people deal with anxiety differently, which I assume some of you are experiencing. Often, when we are anxious, we just want to “get rid of it”. We get scared about being scared, which fuels avoidance reactions. We avoid thinking or talking about what makes us anxious, we try to avoid the physical sensations related to the anxiety or refrain from exposing ourselves to situations, places or people that trigger it. Additionally, we may try to engage in behaviours to prevent the worst from happening because we believe that engaging in such behaviours will protect us (for ex., over-preparing, being overly cautious, repeatedly checking to avoid mistakes). While these avoidance and safety seeking strategies provide relief in the short-term, they can contribute to maintaining the anxiety.

In short, if you do not invite your anxiety to tea, it may bother you for longer periods of time. If you do not allow it to enter, you can’t experience seeing it leave. You get stuck in the anticipatory fear (what if??) and retain the belief that it would be unbearable should it come for a visit.

From: The Subtle Art of Not Giving F*ck – by Mark Manson

“The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.”

Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.

The pain you pursue in the gym results in better health and energy. The failures in business are what lead to better understanding of what is necessary to be successful. Being open with your insecurities paradoxically makes you more confident and charasmatic around others. The pain of honest conversation is what generates trust and respect in your relationships. Suffering through your pain and anxieties is what allows you to build courage and perseverance.

From: Catastrophizing – How to Feel Joy Without Fear – by Brené Brown

Stop dress rehearsing tragedy. If you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, you’re missing out.

I used to stand over my two kids while they slept, and just as a profound sense of love and joy washed over me, I’d imagine horrible things happening to them: car crashes, tsunamis. “Do other mothers do this,” I’d wonder, “or am I unhinged?” I now know from my research that 95 percent of parents can relate to my constant disaster planning. When we’re overwhelmed by love, we feel vulnerable—so we dress-rehearse tragedy. 

Though I study scary emotions like anger and shame for a living, I think the most terrifying human experience is joy. It’s as if we believe that by truly feeling happiness, we’re setting ourselves up for a sucker punch. The problem is, worrying about things that haven’t happened doesn’t protect us from pain. Ask anyone who has experienced a tragedy; they’ll tell you there is no way to prepare. Instead, catastrophizing, as I call it, squanders the one thing we all want more of in life. We simply cannot know joy without embracing vulnerability—and the way to do that is to focus on gratitude, not fear. 

The good news is that joy, collected over time, fuels resilience—ensuring we’ll have reservoirs of emotional strength when hard things do happen. 

The Dare:

Stop the train.
The next time you’re traumatized by “What ifs,” say aloud, “I am feeling vulnerable.” This sentence changed my life. It takes me out of my fear brain—i.e., off the crazy train—and puts me back on the platform, where I can make a conscious choice not to reboard. 

Be thankful.
Recently, when a turbulent flight caused me to start planning my own funeral, I remembered something I’d learned in my research: Joyous people are grateful people. So I used the fear alarm in my head as a reminder to feel grateful for my kids, my husband, and my work. Even more effective: Speak your gratitude aloud to others, or write it in your journal. 

Start a practice.
I believe joy is a spiritual practice we have to work at. For me, that means appreciating everyday moments: a walk with my husband, fishing with my kids on the Gulf Coast. It means not living in fear of what I could lose, but softening into the moments I have.

From: A Cup of Jo – by Joanna Goddard

An Anxiety Trick

Do You Worry Too Much?

The Hardest Two Months of My Life

From: The Good Life – by Hugh McKay

I actually attack the concept of happiness. The idea that—I don’t mind people being happy—but the idea that everything we do is part of the pursuit of happiness seems to me a really dangerous idea and has led to a contemporary disease in Western society, which is fear of sadness. It’s a really odd thing that we’re now seeing people saying “write down three things that made you happy today before you go to sleep” and “cheer up” and “happiness is our birthright” and so on. We’re kind of teaching our kids that happiness is the default position. It’s rubbish. Wholeness is what we ought to be striving for and part of that is sadness, disappointment, frustration, failure; all of those things which make us who we are. Happiness and victory and fulfillment are nice little things that also happen to us, but they don’t teach us much. Everyone says we grow through pain and then as soon as they experience pain they say, “Quick! Move on! Cheer up!” I’d like just for a year to have a moratorium on the word “happiness” and to replace it with the word “wholeness.” Ask yourself, “Is this contributing to my wholeness?” and if you’re having a bad day, it is.

Did any of the passages stand out to you at all? Were any particularly relevant to you, especially during COVID? I always find it so helpful to stop and do a bit of a self- awareness check in every once and a while. I think my favourite take-away is, at the end of the day, if we carefully build and take care of our boats, we will get through these tumultuous waters together.

I’d love to hear any quotes, advice, or pieces you find helpful in these times. What are you all doing to stay mentally healthy these days? I would love to hear if you are willing to share. Sending lots of love <3

A lifestyle blog inspired by all of the things I share with my twin sister. Skincare and style finds, food ideas, health and advice.


  • Barbara Klassen

    Spencer this is an awesome article. I also loved the analogy of the “boat” in the Psychological Handbook for Frontline Workers useful. I would recommend others read it.
    Hugh McKay’s comments about happiness also rang true. We don’t “deserve” happiness (although we should experience happiness). We do deserve to be whole. Happiness is fleeting. . We have to have lows to obtain the highs. I am going to start to reframe my idea of a bad day from a wholeness perspective. Thank you for sharing.

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