QUESTION: I have always been challenged by anxiety, particularly social anxiety, but it hasn’t been until this summer that I’ve realized the true extent of it.

I am literally living in fight or flight mode 90% of my life and am uncertain how to get out of it. I avoid social situations like the plague at times, and at other times I have very well-choreographed, superficial costumes that I put on in order to survive socially, and I do. Some people would even question whether I truly have social anxiety or not.

But those costumes have become very thick walls that keep me from truly connecting to others on any sort of deeper level, and underneath them I am in a constant state of terror. I know that I am not the only one living this way and I wonder if you have any suggestions for how we begin to move out of this state of panic and into a place of ease in being seen.

ANSWER: Your honest observations are an important step in moving you out of the space of distress that you describe. Correct, as you assert, you are far from being “the only one living this way”. Anxiety and terror are there for all of us in varying degrees, but they are there for all. What differs is our awareness of these uncomfortable feelings. We use all sorts of constant activity to push the feelings aside. We all have our own specific patterns and addictions ranging from constant consumption of electronic media to food or objects. The one addiction that we all share is incessant thinking. The main function of constantly being in our heads is that it keeps us out of the moment. This keeps our underlying emotions at bay until something brings our attention to what lies beneath. These are the feelings that are there and you are discovering.

When we are not aware of our anxiety and terror, our defense mechanisms (“very well-choreographed, superficial costumes”, as you beautifully describe them) run us. All the ways we have developed to protect ourselves from these emotions are draining as well as suffocating. Now that you are aware of the anxiety and terror - you can do something about it. The one practice you can start with is to begin having a relationship with the anxiety and terror. As we learn to tolerate these feelings, they lose their hold on us. Start with a simple practice, several minutes at a time, of feeling into them. Use slow and deep belly breathing while being aware of your body with your feet on the ground. Make room for these feelings that have been suppressed for so long. Bringing awareness to the feelings allows them to discharge. This simple and difficult practice allows us to need thinner and thinner costumes to function. 

You have uncovered a gem of a truth here. Dig deep into it and see what it needs to teach you. Start with sitting and bringing awareness to it. See if you need some expert help to uncover the specific sources of the terror. Maybe the practice by itself will be sufficient. Once we start a conversation with our unconscious, it is a life-long relationship of discovery. As we bring light to that aspect of self, we are guided “out of this state of panic and into a place of ease”.