You are not an anxious person

People sometimes say to me “I am an anxious person.” To me, this implies that there is something permanent about the way they are. That there are certain traits that we are just stuck with. I find it quite a depressing thought. If I struggle with anxiety now, I always will do because that’s just who I am.

It also suggests that there is nothing you can do about it. It’s disempowering. Fortunately, it’s also delusional.

It doesn’t take much scrutiny to see that there is nothing permanent about experiencing anxiety. If you think back to 5 years ago or 10 years ago, or to when you were a child, did you experience exactly the same levels of anxiety as you do now? Do you expect to experience it the same way now as when you’re 70 or 80 years old?

Are you the same person you were 10 years ago? Have they not been some big changes in the way that you think and feel and the beliefs you have about the world?

Is the anxiety you experienced last week exactly the same as the week before?

I’m sure if you pause to reflect on it, you will see that there is nothing permanent about the way you experience anxiety, or any other emotion. In fact, nothing is permenant.

In the words of Heraclitus:

““No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

In my own life, I have seen myself become more and more calm and optimistic the more I have practised meditation. And in the lives of my clients I have seen them become steadily less anxious the more they have practised too.

It is understandable that people think that there is something permenant about the way the brain works. Until about 20 years ago, the mainstream view in psychology was that when you became an adult your brain was more or less fixed.

That was until a landmark study into the brains of London taxi drivers. Pre-Uber, they all had to do “the Knowledge”, which meant memorising the names and locations of all the streets in London.

The study found that the posterior hippocampus in taxidrivers was physically bigger than in an average person. And the longer someone had been a taxi driver for, the larger was this area of their brain. Before they started training, their hippocampus was the same size as anybody else’s.

What this study showed was that the brain physically changes depending on what we do with it, even as an adult. This is called neuroplasticity. Faculties of the brain can become stronger or weaker just like muscles.

Meditation has been found to weaken the connections to the brain’s stress centre, the amygdala, and strengthen areas associated with emotional regulation.

To say “I am anxious person”, is equivalent to saying I am a person who can’t speak Portuguese. In the latter example it seems more obvious that if I were to practice Portuguese regularly, I would be able to speak it better.

But it’s the same. If you practice relating to anxious thoughts and feelings more acceptingly, you will experience less of it.

Language is also important here. It is more accurate to say “I often experience anxiety”, than to say “I am an anxious person.” The former allows for the possibility for change, the latter will reinforce to yourself that you’re stuck like this.

What I find exciting about meditation, is it shows that pretty much everything is trainable. You can train calmness, compassion, concentration, contentment – and not only qualities that begin with C! Also acceptance, kindness, self-awareness, emotional intelligence and patience.

They’re only two things required: the belief that it is possible and the perseverance in following it through. So what are you waiting for?