My beloved partner came up with this phrase after I had pointed out that anxiety is always seeking a story – a place to land. I appreciated the image as it helped me ground this lesson. Anxiety is a state of mind that arises with regularity – whether you have lost your keys, are waiting for the results of a medical test, or have not heard from someone after a natural disaster.
From relatively mild situations to intense and difficult scenarios, our amygdala (the part of our brain responsible for emotional responses/survival) gets triggered. Without intervention, feelings of anxiety can quickly grow from mild to intense regardless of the actual facts. As it grows, it looks for proof, action/inaction, and solutions. Imagine someone who has lost their keys and starts tossing things around the room or yelling at their child. Or waiting for the results of a medical test, imagining the worst-case scenario and being unable to enjoy the lovely dinner your friend has prepared for you and her to share, ending up with a tense and uncomfortable time together. Or even wondering if there is very painful and difficult news and forgetting to breathe and to reach out for support and instead eating a gallon of ice cream.
None of these responses is “bad.” Any of the responses may be the most one can muster at any given time. However, with practice, if you can “catch” the anxiety before you “pin it on the donkey,” spaciousness can arise.
The first step in all this is often to spend time noticing when anxiety is there – often our body is feeling anxious before we know it intellectually. When you know you are anxious, it can be useful to spend time getting to know where it is “sitting” in your physical being. Is it a tension in your shoulders? Or a cramping in your stomach? Your leg jiggling up and down? A clenched jaw? Notice any physical sensation with a gentle naming: “Oh, leg, I see you are jiggling,” for example. This information from your body is trustworthy – and noticing and naming is the first step in being able to create more breathing room.
As time goes on, you might notice the jiggling leg or clenched jaw and then wonder to yourself, “Does this mean I feel anxious?” Knowing how you feel can help you choose to activate support or other tools instead of unconscious reactivity.
Or, as often happens, you may find yourself in the unconscious reactivity, and you could picture your anxiety having been pinned on the donkey (meaning the “storyline” is off and running) and just name that. Once you name it, see if you can take a deep breath in and an even longer breath out, note the donkey and maybe you will remember you have room to breathe/get support/take care of yourself.
In all of this, please do not worry about getting it “right!” Conditions will arise that will give you plenty of opportunity to practice! Eventually, you may notice that the donkey has less pins and more smiles!