We are now two weeks into what looks to be a long journey of literally and figuratively turning inwards. Our jobs, activities, interactions and emotions are now being forced to take place in our homes. As the pace of life slows down and our interactions with the outside world minimize, we are required to be with ourselves in a different way. This can feel highly uncomfortable for the average American who is used to being “constantly on the go.” So the question arises, when there is literally nowhere you can go, what comes up?
Anxiety may be a common answer to this question. But I feel the need to define anxiety in this context as it’s often a term thrown around to communicate any form of discomfort or distress in the human experience. The anxiety I am referring to here is the space between where we are and where we want to be. Synonyms for this might be a sense of urgency, restlessness, futility or a feeling that something is dire. You may be thinking “something is dire, COVID-19 is the first global pandemic resulting in self-quarentie in 100 years!” which is entirely valid. But I challenge you to consider that your anxiety was present long before COVID-19 hijacked your lifestyle. The next time you feel the urge to look at the news and read the number of new cases in the US, check in with yourself. What do you notice? Become curious. Is your heart rate fast or slow? Are you feeling overheated, comfortable, or cold? What were you thinking about just before you turned to your phone?
Anxiety often begins as a physiological experience in the body. Yet the body-mind connection is so strong that we automatically engage in a task that will make sense of our physiological state of discomfort. So when you wake up with a feeling of dread your stomach, turn to apple news and see the number of COVID-19 cases is over 100,000 you can tell yourself “I feel anxious for a reason” so adaptive and brilliant! The problem is that COVID-19 is simply a real and overwhelming attribution for the feeling of restlessness and urgency that has always been there but we are not used to sitting with day in and day out.
Americans function and even thrive in a state of consistent anxiety, we just don’t realize it because we are so busy managing this anxiety through work, hobbies, email, social gatherings and so on. When all of our coping skills are stripped away from us, it can feel disorienting and distressing. I encourage you to shift your perspective 45 degrees, viewing this more simple and slowed pace of life as a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to know your anxiety, listen to what it’s telling you and respond to what it needs.
In the Netherlands, people engage in a state of being called “Niksen” which translates to “doing nothing.” They literally have a verb for it! They don’t call it “laziness” or “boredom” and they don’t pathologize it as “apathy” a term listed under symptoms of depression in the DSM-5. In the Netherlands, Niksen is a benign state of being, neither good nor bad, it simply is. Examples of Niksen include looking out your window watching the rain, listening to birds chirping or hearing the ticking of a clock in your office.The Dutch have found that engaging in Niksen has helped to prevent burnout. The way I understand this is that Niksen is the compassionate response that anxiety requires of us. Recall my earlier definition of anxiety as the space between where we are and where we want to be. Niksen, or allowing ourselves to do absolutely nothing, tells our minds, but most importantly our bodies “you are okay just as you are right here and right now.” So the next time you have that automatic response to pull up the news, start cleaning the house which is already immaculate or check your temperature to make sure you don’t have a fever despite feeling perfectly healthy, see if you can instead allow yourself to be still; look, listen, and do absolutely nothing. You are okay just as you are, right here and right now.