In times of heightened stress and anxiety, the mind can become like the turbulent surface of the sea. Anxiety and stress need to be taken seriously, before they become overwhelming.
The surface of the sea appears boiling with chaos, lashed by storms as waves crash in apparently chaotic fashion. In this moment, the surface of the sea is far from calm.
At this same moment, far below that chaotic surface, the depths of the sea are so still as to appear eternally calm, eternally unchanging. The currents at the ocean bed move so slowly, with such infinite grace, that the very idea of the hellish storm on the surface seems impossible.
Both states can exist simultaneously. The grace and the chaos in the same moment.
Our minds work in the same way. In times of heightened stress and anxiety, the mind can become like the turbulent surface of the sea. Our conscious minds take us into the infinity of thoughts.* The mind feels as if it is boiling over in a manner that is far from pleasant, far from calm. Urgent thoughts crowd in and lash the mind. Just like the unceasing, unpredictable chaos of the waves crashing one after another and into one another.
At the same time, below it all and further back in the depths of the mind, a slower, eternally patient consciousness is always there. Away from the frenetic focus on the immediate moment, the currents of thought here are guided by a deeper set of values and of truths. In times of peaks stress, moving away from the mind’s surface state can be challenging in the extreme. It might seem impossible. But it is not.
Your anxiety is your quality of life
In times of stress and strain, your mind can play terrible tricks on you. Your mind doesn’t always do all it should to help you.
“Imagine how effective you would be if you weren’t anxious all the time.”
Anxiety can make you ineffective. But anxiety is not necessarily all bad, Naval says. There is an argument to be made that anxiety is just there. Anxiety is just the mind talking out loud in a voice only you can hear. I love how Naval characterises anxiety:
“It’s this crazy roommate living inside your mind who’s always chattering, never shuts up and you can’t control these thoughts.”
Whether our experience of anxiety is good or bad comes down to how we perceive it and how we react to it. You have no say in who this “roommate” is. You have no choice but to be in this relationship. But Naval believes that you do have a choice in how you deal with what they have to say. I was struck by his argument that your anxiety – and, more precisely, how you co-exist with that anxiety – is your quality of life. Naval says:
“The quality of your thoughts, those conversations you’re having in your head all the time. That is your world. That’s a lens you see through, and that’s going to determine the quality of your life more than anything else. If you want to see what the quality of your life actually is, just sit by yourself, doing nothing. And then you will know what the quality of your life actually is because that’s what you’re always running away from.”
At its worst, anxiety can make the mind feel like the storm-tossed surface of the sea. The relationship with the voice inside your head, with your inner monologue, can be unharmonious. But you can turn this situation around. Help is out there. I would urge anyone reading this who is feeling overwhelmed by stress and anxiety at this moment to make sure that those who care about you know what you are going through, and not to be afraid to seek professional help or advice if necessary.
To resolve what is unresolved
Harmony is there to be found. If you want to work on understanding your own anxiety, one approach is to start by taking the time to listen to what that uninvited “roommate” in your mind is trying to tell you. Naval says that the most important step is to see “what’s actually in your mind that your mind wants to tell you, and what you need to resolve that is unresolved.” There is always a message there, even if it is distorted.
There is always a truth at the root of this metaphorical roommate’s ramblings. By getting to this truth, the action you need to take should become clear. It might not be a course of action that is easy or that you like the sound of. He mentions therapy, meditation and reading as ways to investigate anxiety. True meditation should always hold the potential to be destructive, Naval argues. It could well unlock insights that inspire you to change core aspects of your life. This is not a one-off exercise. You will need to confront what your mind is trying to tell you over and over again throughout your life. Naval says:
“There’s nothing out there that will make you happy forever. So you have to take responsibility for guiding yourself in such a way that your mental state ends up where you want it.”
What your mind is really trying to tell you
I am dealing with the acute effects of stress and anxiety right now. For various reasons, the past few months have been a difficult time for me. The mind a storm at sea. Sleep patterns disrupted. Waking in the dead of night with surging adrenaline. I have experienced such symptoms for short periods in the past, but have somehow felt as if I was able to cope. This time has been different. A growing feeling of everything slipping out of control.
At the start of this past week (Monday 28 February 2022), I finally acknowledged that I have a serious problem, and called in my issue to my local NHS practice. I am so pleased that I did. Help is out there. My treatment is now underway. It is not over yet. It has barely begun. But I feel that I am at last moving in the right direction. Even if I left it too long before calling it in.
Gentle reader, I urge you to take your mental health seriously, to acknowledge what your mind might be really trying to tell you, and to take action or even seek help, if that is what is called for. Anxiety and stress need to be taken seriously, before they become overwhelming.
The grace and the chaos exist in the same moment. May the grace outweigh the chaos for you, today and tomorrow.
May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.
- Mental health (NHS) Information and support for your mental health from the NHS.
- Information and support (Mind) Resources from Mind, the UK mental health charity.
- NAMI Homefront (NAMI) Online resources from US charity NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).
- SANE Australia Visit the site of this “national mental health charity making a real difference in the lives of people affected by complex mental health issues”.
* The title of this post is taken from the Norwegian black metal band Emperor. Into the Infinity of Thoughts is the opening song on their incredible album In the Nightside Eclipse. This music will definitely not be everyone’s cup of coffee. But I share it here as I love it, and love the (likely) accidental poetry of its title. At first listen, it may well strike you as a laughable cacophony, chaotic as the surface of a storm-tossed sea. And what’s with the singer’s shrieking goblin voice? But with repeated listens, it is possible to find a calm at the heart of this storm, a central eternal consciousness detached from the chaos around it. Both states can exist simultaneously. The grace and the chaos in the same moment.