Sensations and Labels

Dummies with words on their headsSeveral years ago, I was preparing to lead a live workshop, and I went to the venue to check on some logistics. I experienced panic attacks for a long time, but at this particular point, I hadn’t felt anything I would consider anxiety or panic for at least six or seven years.

At the venue, I began feeling some strange sensations. I remember watching my mind try to interpret them. Was I overly tired? How much sleep did I get the night before?
Did I forget to eat lunch? Was I nervous about something going wrong at the event? Was I coming down with something?

My mind went through a long list of possible interpretations as I felt energy rising and buzzing through me. As the energy rose, my mind sped up its reason hunt. As my mind sped up its reason hunt, the energy rose even more. As the energy fell, my mind slowed down. As my mind slowed down, the energy settled even more.

And then it hit me. I had a deep knowing that what I was experiencing was the sort of thing that would have become a panic attack in the past. The rising, buzzing energy was the same energy I used to feel all the time. My mind used to meet that energy with oh-no-not-again-I-can’t-calm-down-make-it-stop. Those interpretations kept me focused on the energy. Staring at the rising energy would give me the experience of it rising and buzzing even more. In my mind’s eye, on that day, I clearly saw how a harmless, meaningless shift in energy, plus a scary mind-made story, led to years of panic attacks.

On that particular day, I had a completely different experience of rising, buzzing energy. My mind was calm and curious. It wanted reasons and answers, don’t get me wrong, but there was no fear or urgency. With some space, I observed energy fluctuating and a mind searching.

Feelings are not states that exist outside of thought. Fear, insecurity, shame, craving, and excitement don’t course through your body—energy does, and then your mind slaps a label on it and determines what you experience.

When you see that the label is not as real or meaningful as it appears, that it’s only a mind doing what minds do, feelings don’t feel quite the same.

— Excerpt adapted from Just a Thought: A No-Willpower Approach to End Self-Doubt and Make Peace with Your Mind. Available now.

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