Anxiety: A lifelong affliction
I confess: For most of my life, I have been a secret worrywart. And when I had children, my fretting tendencies increased. As the mother of two teenage daughters and the wife of an easygoing man, I’d take on worries for all of us. When one of my girls was particularly ill, an anxious thought would rear its head: What if it’s leukemia or meningitis? I’d go off on vacations with “what if?” worries looping in my brain, and a vague unease about what might be lurking around the corner.
Take going on a ski trip from our home in Victoria. The night before, I’d worry about driving on the Malahat, a treacherous mountain route known for black ice and sudden snow. Smash-ups regularly close the road in winter. I’ve safely traversed the Malahat umpteen times, but still I’d toss and turn the night before.
Few friends or colleagues ever knew my worrying ways, as I always presented a calm, confident, risk-taking exterior to the world. My anxious nature never stopped me from doing anything I needed or wanted to do. Yet my husband knew I fretted. In the early years of our marriage he tried to calm my fears, but in time he learned the best approach was simply to give me a wide berth to work through my “process.” As a journalist who has reported on a lot of tragedy, I thought my anxious foreboding was a product of a realistic mind preparing for risks.
In fact, it is embarrassing to me now to acknowledge its impact on my life. But now I am coming clean. It undermined my happiness and appreciation of life. And it put me through some uncomfortable physical sensations, like rapid heartbeats, teeth grinding and restless sleep. My rumination kept me focused on the bad things that might happen, at the expense of appreciating the good that was occurring at the moment. At times, I would also dwell on missed opportunities in the past, the roads not taken, and it would make me sad.
Then, one day, I had a chance encounter in a New Age bookstore. It was not my sort of place; I was proud of being a rational scientist by training and a skeptical journalist by trade. But I was looking for a relaxation tape for my daughter Madeline, then seven, who was developing a tendency to fret, especially at bedtime. I thought a tape of nature sounds might help her sleep. Among the crystals and incense, a book title jumped out: The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I’d never heard of it before, but something drew me to it. I took it to the cash register along with the nature tape.
And here’s what happened: The tape helped my daughter sleep; the book changed my life. No joke. Nothing I have ever read or experienced has given me such insight into my own dysfunctional thought processes (which until then I hadn’t realized were dysfunctional) or given me a set of mental tools to correct them.
I keep The Power of Now on my bedside table. I travel with it. If my husband sees me setting up for a bout of worrying, he says, “Get your book.” Like Oprah Winfrey, I regard Tolle—a German-born, Vancouver-based writer and spiritual leader—as a prophet for our times. His bestseller has now been translated into 32 languages. Tolle says that nothing ever occurs except in “the now.” The past is simply a memory trace of a former now. The future, when it comes, is now. All we ever have in our life is this moment. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plan for the future or reminisce over the past. It just means we should pay attention to where our thoughts are focused, and keep most of them on the present moment.
My fear of driving the Malahat was typical of someone who has too many of her thoughts focused on the future. Anxiety, tension, dread—all forms of fear—are rooted in preoccupation with the future, and they contaminate our awareness and appreciation of the present moment.
“You are projecting yourself into an imaginary future situation and creating fear, but there is no way you can cope with such a situation because it doesn’t exist,” writes Tolle. If a crisis does arise, most of us find we can deal with it. For me, this explained why despite fretting the night before, when I was actually driving the road I was calm, and could cope even in bad weather.
Tolle also contends that depression, guilt, regret, remorse, bitterness, resentment, grievances and grudges—all forms of non-forgiveness—arise from having too many thoughts focused on the past and not enough on the present moment.
I used to think of some of my thought patterns—such as running mental movies of an anticipated event like a party or job promotion, or imagining I’d sold one of my so-far unsuccessful film scripts—as harmless and pleasant. But Tolle notes that these thoughts also set us up for dissatisfaction. Such a mind pattern always makes the future seem better than the present, and then when the future comes it is usually not the way we imagined it. The present is all we ever have.
Daily effort for a richer life
I’m not fully cured of my worrying ways; I have to work at it almost daily. But I have the skills to stop dysfunctional thoughts and become more fully present—and happier. My life is richer; my peace of mind and appreciation of life have increased. And I remember people’s names better when we’re introduced, because I focus on them and what they are saying, rather than worry about what I’m going to say next.
Tolle’s wisdom has even helped my once-fretful daughter. She no longer worries about school tests; she does what she can to prepare for it, and lets the other thoughts go. If she’s anxious, she has a relaxing bath or focuses on her breathing.
Unlike me, who took decades to learn this simple truth to increased fulfillment, she is on her way at a young age to developing the tools to help her live a life that’s engaged, happy—and rooted in the present.