my dharma journey to mental healthiness

bucko as a sophomore in high school

My anxiety learned far too well from human evolution. This is where the great value of mental health care and mindfulness practice is seen for me.

For me, anxiety shaped how I respond to stress. The underlying emotion is not what one might normally associate with “anxiety” per se – nervousness, antsiness, wondering “oh dear, whatever shall I do”. For me, fear is the foundation of my anxiety. It’s a fear that attacks my thoughts and physical responses with the worry that something awful will happen. Sadly, until a couple of years ago, no one told me the secret: Something awful will rarely happen.

Human evolution taught our brains that the best way to deal with fear, especially fear of something we can’t see or don’t recognize, is to run and hide. My anxiety thought that was great advice, so that’s what I’ve done for most of my life. I have avoided difficulty and confrontation in every possible way. I have looked for the easiest way through a tough situation. I have chosen an unhappy path forward over a difficult, potentially dangerous (ie, frightening) way. 

When I was married, I would pick silence over responding. That did not work well. If I did speak, my fear had so scrambled everything that I would say the “wrong” things. My nervousness, fear throttling my thoughtfulness, ensured I would say things that did not help a situation. Having a partner with her own set of issues didn’t help; we share equal credit for the marriage not lasting. But if I had the understanding of my mental state-of-being then that I had now, it would have been a completely different story.

For one thing, I’m not sure I would have even married her! Who knows.

Ultimately, what I learned from my anxiety was that the best way to deal with difficult situations was to do nothing and believe that would lead to a miracle. Sadly, I got bailed out by well-meaning people, and sometimes a bit of luck, far too often. If I had crashed-and-burned early on, perhaps I might have started to learn better ways earlier. 

Or not. I needed the guidance of a mental health professional, and that was even less available back in the 80s. Mindfulness-based therapy was still in early stages of clinical development, and that has been my true miracle. It’s a miracle I have to make happen, but, given how I now respond to anxiety – intentionally, aware of my thoughts and emotions, ready to take positive steps instead of submitting to fear – it’s hard to think of it as anything other than miraculous.