Emotional Fluidity: Learning to ‘Surf’ Anxiety – Part One

Anxiety, fear and panic may seem intense and volatile enough to feel like they’re going to last forever. But there’s great news: they’re not and they won’t. We promise. Heck, notable French author Francois de la Rouchefoucauld even promises, as evidenced in one of his many notable maxims: 

The only thing constant in life is change.

This series of articles is going to explore the constant changes in life, especially those pertaining to the emotional fluidity of anxiety. We will then point out ways to best understand emotional fluidity and offer helpful hints for focusing on the fluidity as a way to successfully get through anxiety. Because mindfulness fits neatly into our topic’s equation, we’ll also offer a mini-lesson on that concept along with exercises to help you attain it.

Let’s start with all this jazz about emotional fluidity, impermanence, and constant change as the only constant in life. Got a minute? 

Life in constant flux

Everything in life is in a constant state of flux, especially our emotions. And anxiety, fear, panic or other strong emotions that may seem like they are going to honestly be your death knell are simply just emotions. They go in the same category as happiness, serenity and love as an emotional states. Sure, we’d rather hang out in the happiness, serenity and love landscape, but they don’t stick around forever, either.

Rivers run. Flowers bloom. Kittens become cats. Anxiety sneaks, creeps, builds, evolves and eventually goes away.

While most would agree that running rivers, blooming flowers, and anxiety abating are positive things – and some are undecided if it’s good that kittens become cats – all of the developments still constitute change. Also for most, any type of change can be scary, even if the change leads to what we consider a positive development. Many people face change while kicking and screaming as if their worlds were on fire.

Sometimes it may feel like it is.

Life as a river

We can douse this fire and its related kicking and screaming if we view life as the Buddha suggested, as if it was a river. While life may seem like one continuous and unified flow of stuff, it’s really made up of a bunch of currents. Those currents can be seen as the different causes and effects that change life every moment.

Take a photo of a specific river at 10 a.m. and another of that same river at noon, or even 10:01 a.m., and the river is not the same one it was just a moment ago. The same phenomenon happens with life. It’s a constant ebb and flow, evolution and change, a living lesson in constant impermanence.

Everything in life passes and becomes something else. The bud becomes a flower, the flower becomes a dried-up stem. The kitten still becomes the cat. And anxiety, it can become pain, anger, disappointment, fear or even transform into glee before the emotional cycle subsides. 

Understanding emotional fluidity

Focus on phrases like “emotional fluidity” and “Rohefoucauld’s paradoxical maxim” and you may end up not grasping the concept as easily as you could if it were explained in simpler terms. So let’s go for the simpler terms with two easier ways to understand anxiety. 

Exercise: Surfing anxiety

Your anxiety and other emotions typically follow the same evolution as an ocean wave. They build, peak, and then peter out or pass as they hit the shore. The trick is to ride out strong feelings while remaining as calm as relaxed as possible until they get to that shore stage. When you liken anxiety and other emotions to an ocean wave, all you need to do is hop on your surfboard and ride out that wave as it reaches the shore.

You need not hold their surfboard in a death grip, either. If you are centered on the board you can simply sit back, relax, and let your surfboard do all the work for you. It will ride out the wave as it builds, peaks, and then peters out on its way to shore. 

Benefits of surfing anxiety

It keeps sharks and drowning at bay. If you are prone to struggling against anxiety when it waves up, you may find yourself in the same boat, so to speak, as the terrified swimmer that tends to panic. Once panic sets in, swimmers typically began to thrash, gnash and kick wildly, which only makes the wave more intense, the panic more severe and the threat of drowning more of a risk.

Once you grab your surfboard and jump atop of the wave, don’t try to defeat the wave. You can instead remain calm, cool, and a bit collected. This offers you a great chance of reaching the shore safely and serenely. Besides, all that thrashing and kicking about is a surefire way to attract killer sharks that can pick up distress signals in an instant. 

Each wave will make you stronger for the next one. If you’ve ever noted the muscle tone of an accomplished surfer, you’ve noticed some pretty impressive muscles. Their muscles get a little stronger every time they hop on the board, stand up atop it, and keep their balance while they surf the churning ocean. They also become more skilled at seeing the type of wave that is churning beneath them, recognizing the tugs and pulls, and retaining their balance. The longer they surf, the easier it generally becomes as their experience and strength continues to grow. The same will happen with your anxiety.

Your mental muscles will become stronger each time you ride out a wave of intense emotions. You’ll learn that, although each wave may have slight differences, they all share one important trait: they will die off once they hit the shore. Your strong emotions will pass and you never have to thrash, kick or drown during the process. Another tool that can help prevent you from downing, especially during a heavy rain, is a good ole umbrella.

Exercise: Using Your Anxiety Umbrella

Another analogy may find helpful is likening feelings like anxiety to the weather. While the weather may not always be exactly how we planned or wanted, it always changes if we wait. How many times has a walk to the store or a sunny hike been blasted by a sudden thunderstorm you or even the weather forecasters weren’t expecting?

Probably a bunch.

That didn’t mean you had to stand out in the middle of the rain until you became drenched and miserable. It just meant you needed to open your umbrella. The same holds true for anxiety. You can simply open your Anxiety Umbrella when you feel the first sprinkles of anxiety. Your Anxiety Umbrella will keep you protected. That means you can stay where you are, continue what you’re doing, and otherwise simply go about your life until the anxiety shower passes. 

Benefits of using your Anxiety Umbrella

You don’t have to stop doing what’s important. Just like you don’t have to stop living your life every time it rains, you can keep on living with anxiety. There is no need to run and hide, scream and cry, or shut down an entire schedule just because it rains. You can usually keep doing what’s important to you, accepting you might get a bit damp in the process. So anxiety can make you a bit damp, but it’s not going to flood out all the activities from your life. When anxiety starts its sprinkle, simply remember “It’s just raining.”

You don’t have to avoid any activities. Do you stay home from work because it might rain? Do you quit calling friends, walking the dog or even venturing outdoors if rain may be on the forecast? No. Nor should you stop any activities just because they may make you a little anxious. The anxiety, like the rain, will pass.

All weather conditions always pass. Sometimes the weather is fabulous, while other times it’s not so great. The constant changes of the weather don’t lead us to take permanent action based on the weather of a particular day or season. We don’t throw away our swimsuits in the winter just because it’s snowy and cold. We instead hang onto them for the warm and sunny weather that will come again. We also don’t get rid of our snow shovels in the spring, because cold wintery days are part of life, too.

It all changes. It all passes. And it’s not only French authors who noticed; the Bible’s King Solomon remarked on life’s changes as well, with a popular (and often ire-inducing) quote.

This too shall pass.

In the meantime, go out and do what you love!

This is part one of a three-part series, “Emotional Fluidity: Learning to ‘Surf’ Anxiety.” Click here to read the rest of the series.