Using Awe to combat Anxiety

Using Awe to combat Anxiety

One of the items that I encounter frequently is how one's anxiety keeps them away from the things they love. Anxiety leads to fear and fear stops one from attempting to reach for what it is that they truly love, want and need to grow as a person. Dacher Keltner, PhD, founder of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley, is advancing studies in how doing things for the common good is at the core of our prosocial behavior.

Now you might ask why awe? Let us consider what happens to us when we are in awe of something, we get that wonderful feeling flowing throughout all of our being that we are just a speck in a universe of ever expanding greatness. We stand there, taking in all the beautiful emotions that witnessing this awesome event or item brings to us. We see and realize that there are things greater than our individual selves and slowly we begin to transcend the thoughts of self-interest. We become more aware of the community around us, it is no longer just a thought of 'me'. This brings about a sense of calm and peace. We sense ourselves being happier, healthier, and feel better about ourselves and the world around us.

Think back to when had a strong feeling of anxiety. It could have been your first date, just before your first kiss. It could be in your early childhood when you were learning how to ride a bicycle and your parents took off the training wheels. Or how about your first job interview. Recall the emotions that were swirling about you, the thoughts running rampant throughout your head. How many of them were true and how many were created to 'hold you back' from the unknown? These are your self-interest thoughts. You don't want to go out of your norm and experience something new, the anxiety rises and tries to stop you in your tracks.

Now, think back to an instant where you were in awe of something. Maybe you grew up in the country and this is your first visit to the city with all its tall buildings, or the other way around if you grew up in the city and had your first trip to a National Park with all its beautiful natural surroundings. Did you feel the awesomeness run throughout your nervous system and change your emotions? This sense of awe can inspire us to consider not just yourself, but to expand and want to help others feel the same sense of awe you are right now and that precise moment. As Darwin noted in his book "The Descent of Man", 'sympathy is our strongest instinct.'

I can recall using this technique years back when I was trying to overcome my anxiety over a divorce. I was living in Charleston, South Carolina and I would wake up early on Saturday morning, before the sun even started to poke its head over the horizon. I would drive down to Folley Beach and park at the Northernmost location. I then walked to the beach and headed further North to a large rock formation at the entrance to the harbor. There I would sit, facing the East, and wait for the sun to rise over the horizon. The serenity, peace, and mindfulness that this brought on is almost indescribable. Watching the sun alter the colors of the horizon, rise over the end of the majestic sea, and ultimately bathe me in its beautiful light was better than any other feeling I was experiencing. Just to ‘be in the awe’ of nature, the ‘wonder of the Universe’, calmed me and allowed me to proceed on my path, developing the love I have for all that is.

I still experience the awesomeness in nature when I travel across this beautiful country of ours, preferring to ride my motorcycle over flying to 'get there quick,' as described in this excellent blog entry. I take in all the pleasantries of the changing scenery, the loving nature of all those I meet along the way, the sharing of my experience with the locals of where ever I happen to be. For me, blissfulness abounds on a long trip, it brings about the greatest sensation of calm and resets the mind to be more in touch with who you really are and where you are heading.

Dacher Keltner's early research has shown that if you give people the choice to cooperate or compete, and ask them to make a quick intuitive decision, they will cooperate most of the time. His research is also learning more about the vagus nerve. It is the largest bundle of nerves in the body, wrapped around the heart and leading up into our face. Part of its function appears to be to help us care for others. When one cooperates, share, or express gratitude, reward circuits fire in the brain indicating that we are deeply committed to the others at the core of our being.

Nina Strehl





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