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April 26, 2022

What I Learned from my Dark Night of the Soul: 12 Essential Lessons on Facing Anxiety & Depression.

 

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At the beginning of the pandemic, I experienced what I now consider to have been a dark night of the soul.

A number of factors combined to push me into this place. The pandemic coincided with being poorly treated at work, resulting in the loss of my role, along with the revelation that my marriage was in trouble.

I live in Australia with my husband and daughter whilst the rest of my family, including my twin sister, lives in the United Kingdom. This meant that access to my family was cut off (I have now not seen them for three years)—something I had always dreaded.

Two of my sisters also caught COVID-19 in the early days, with my older sister subsequently suffering from long-Covid and having to be hospitalised a few times with difficulty breathing. My youngest sister then also had a mental breakdown not long after me. This multitude of factors combined to push me into the darkest depths that I never knew I, nor anyone for that matter, could experience.

I won’t go into all the detail of the few months I suffered, as I could write pages on it and it all gets a bit boring and self-indulgent. Initially, I experienced a nervous breakdown that I can see was a consequence of the constant terrifying thoughts that were assaulting me.

Interestingly, no health professional ever used those words “nervous breakdown” when I talked to them (I wish they had, as I could’ve started work on building my nervous system back up), but I really feel now that it is the best way to describe what happened to me.

Everything scared me, and I have always considered myself brave (I learned to fly airplanes, I like climbing mountains, and I moved to countries alone). My nerves had literally gone, and I couldn’t cope with anything. I found TV, reading, anything remotely challenging pushed me to overwhelm. Within a week or so, I was being pushed frequently to an edge that I didn’t think I could survive. I rang Lifeline when I first felt the feelings that were to engulf me for weeks, thinking I couldn’t feel this way for an hour let alone any longer.

The constant fear left me unable to do much at all, but I did have to keep looking after my three-year-old daughter, which I felt unable to do, but we were in lockdown and I had no other option (I had gone on sick leave from work and all childcares were closed).

Because I was in a state of terror, I couldn’t sleep at all and was only able to get around three to six hours a night with the aid of sleeping drugs (they were my saviour!). For a number of weeks, I woke up every morning at 3 a.m. in the deepest dread. I felt as if every fear I had ever encountered was suddenly at the surface of my consciousness; a layer that protected me from the precarious—and frankly, at times, terrifying—existence of being a human had been stripped away.

Underneath all the more surface fears were the deepest existential fears, which I believe are at the root of a dark night of the soul experience. I felt terrified by the insignificance of life and paralysed by a loneliness, a separateness, that threatened to overwhelm me. Death was something to cling onto—a blessing. At least I would die one day; this could not go on forever. At this point in my life, I was way more scared of living than dying.

I was trying to get help through all of this. All I wanted to do with my whole being was make myself “better,” to stop the intense waves of feelings that I seemed to have no control over. I was on medication and was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder early on (it sounded so mild compared to what I was experiencing).

This, then, morphed into severe depression. I spoke to several counsellors, although, in the beginning, their advice often felt like throwing a pea at the open jaws of a charging lion intent upon devouring you. I needed someone nurturing me, reassuring me constantly, bringing me down from the states of terror or despair I kept falling into, not a phone call once a week where they would tell me how exercise is good for me and can release endorphins.

I’ve also spent most of my adult life pursuing “personal development” and “spiritual growth” (daily meditator, yogi, obsessive reader of spiritual literature, and so on), so I had a lot of tools at hand, but none of them seemed to come close to being able to help me, although, at the same time, I believe they were what allowed me to “survive” this experience (along with the support of medication) and eventually recover.

Despite my belief that I couldn’t, I did cope. And I learned so much. Gradually, over time, and after many sleepless nights of suffering, I was able to sit with the feelings, however awful they felt. And a pattern started to emerge: I would feel waves of unbearable emotions that I could not comprehend for hours that would throw me into a confused mental terror, and then they would lighten, and realisations would start bombarding me.

I delved deeper and deeper through the layers of fear: the ones at the surface (my need to please because I need to be liked to feel okay), how I “allowed” and even sought out mistreatment so that in some perverse way I could confirm from others what I felt about myself (and what I had experienced early in life), my need to look a certain way to feel okay (my lack of self-love resulting in all of these above and the need to “achieve” a sense of self-worth through “success” and the admiration of others).

All common emotional-thought patterns, I believe. Further down, my suppression of uncomfortable feelings through numbing activities—eating, drinking, mindless entertainment—and how I seem to often subtly place myself as inferior and at other times superior to others and how this creates a disconnect and painful sense of separation.

Deeper still, the endless attraction of thinking, the mind’s desire to (and belief that it can!) control life to block out the inherent uncertainty and fragility of this world, the societal conditions and norms that deeply engrain mind patterns that are damaging to our well-being—such as the currently ever growing “individualisation” trend that places so much pressure on the individual to achieve—and the realisation that we truly cannot believe what the mind/thinking is telling us and that we must work to break our trusting relationship with it.

These are just some of the understandings and realisations; I couldn’t believe how many layers there were. As another huge realisation hit me, I would think “this is it, I know how to move out of this now,” but for quite some time, I would fall back into suffering and more would come.

I am now no longer on any sort of medication and have been quietly integrating what I learned into my life day by day. I wish I’d had an Eckhart Tolle recovery catapulted into egoless bliss, but unfortunately, I don’t think it works that way for most people. (This brought frustration, which I realised was yet another block to recovery that I have worked to overcome.)

All I know is that the lessons below, which I have worked hard to bring into my experience, have brought me closer and closer to that which I prayed so fervently for in my darkest nights: peace in my heart and an expanding sense of love revealing itself from the core of my being as who I truly am.

1. Trust in yourself. This is the key to healing anxiety. Anxiety is showing you the pathway to regaining the trust you have lost. Trust in self is trust in life. Love for self is love for life, for we are life. I’ve said this to a number of anxious people and they often initially deny it, but as I explain it further, it’s like something clicks.

You’re not anxious about future events per se; you’re anxious that you, in some way or form, will not be able to cope with future events. You have lost trust in yourself and in life. Trust in self is trust in life, for we are our most intimate and direct experience of life (and in fact only experience, but that is a whole other article).

2. Breathing, breathing, breathing. Conscious breathing is one of the most valuable (and sometimes only) tool we have to survive intense emotions. Do not underestimate (as I did) the power of breath. As Matt Kahn says, “Breath is the living evidence of well-being…No matter what kind of life you lead, if you want to improve the possibilities of your reality, deepen your relationship with breath.”

Use it to ground and anchor yourself into your being. LSD breaths, as my yoga teacher used to say: long, slow, and deep. Become conscious of the breath as often as you can.

3. How you think of you is more important than what anyone else thinks of you. Another one I knew (and that we all know) but was not living. You’ve got to go down to the granular for this one. Become aware of every mundane thought that often starts with “I wonder if that person thinks I’m…” I was quite amazed when I became more fully aware of my thoughts and how often I was thinking about what other people were thinking of me. What a waste of time! Gently, ever so kindly, try not to identify with these thoughts and let them go.

4. As often repeated and possibly corny as it sounds, “to thine own self be true” (Shakespeare) is one of the greatest pieces of advice ever given. If you abandon yourself for others, you will suffer.

“At the centre of your being, you have the answer. You know who you are and what you want.” ~ Lao Tzu

This message is all over the place at the moment, but we still find it so hard to live. I wasn’t and I thought I was. You must follow your own path and not do things because you think society, your parents, your partner, your child, and so on will love you more or be disappointed if you don’t do them. They are all flawed human beings, as we all are, projecting their own desires and fears onto others.

5. Know and understand that the mind is limited in its ability to solve emotional and spiritual problems. Thinking and intellectualising can only take you so far. During my dark night of the soul, I can’t tell you how many times I said “wow, I’ve always known this and believed this, but now I am actually experiencing it, I get it.”

Believe in the greater wisdom of the body and the soul, not just of the thinking mind. Search for that wisdom in the silence, when the mind finally shuts up, and when you can start to listen to and experience the deeper innate wisdom that can be found beneath the mind chatter. Every spiritual leader preaches this.

6. It’s all in you; none of it is “out there.” This perspective can be a real game changer in learning to heal from anxiety. And hopefully, it is true. Every sensory experience and thought you have is inside you; we are all constantly creating our own mini-universes inside.

Current thinking (which will be deeply engrained in you) sees external things happening that trigger reactions in you. Yes, but you have a certain amount of control over those reactions, and if you become aware, total control.

Shifting your thinking from trying to control the external to being more concerned with the internal, I have come to see results in the most profound shift in the way we approach life. With anxiety, we can start to think that we can’t do certain things because they will “trigger” anxiety in us. Understanding that all we need to do is work on ourselves (which is fundamentally about learning to love ourselves), rather than needing to change all the external circumstances around us so we are “okay,” is a wonderful relief.

7. Anxiety and depression can be used as gifts for growth—to help us heal, particularly traumas from the past. Do not see them as “something going wrong” (unfortunately, this is how our society frames them). This is actually part of their power and what hampers recovery—in particular the feelings of “I have done something wrong” or “I am broken.”

Our attitude to anxiety and depression plays a crucial role in healing. See them as a gift that is bringing out trauma and wounds usually hidden into the open—revealed to be healed. Pure gold for growth.

8. We all, somewhere in us, at some level, feel ugly, unworthy, and unlovable (David R. Hawkins—one of my current favourites). All of us (even Gwyneth Paltrow). None of us were brought up by fully conscious, loving beings (and many of us by humans who were far from this ideal).

As we become aware of any of these feelings (and they can be quite subconscious), work to gently, lovingly let them go, knowing they are not us and not true. Just be careful not to let the ego grab a hold of these thoughts as its new toy to make it feel special and fall into victim mode, which will hinder our growth.

9. Feel everything. We are meant to feel it all. The habits and patterns that we develop to numb out or suppress feelings eventually cause suffering. The aim is to allow all feelings to be, with no resistance and full acceptance. As Pema Chödrön says, “If you don’t get to know the nature of fear, you will never know fearlessness.” (Please see exception below.)

10. Trauma. Repressed feelings can often be deeply overwhelming, but you do not have to do it alone; in fact, you shouldn’t. It will likely be too much. Find people who can support you and bring back feelings of safety. If you are feeling unsafe in your mind and/or body, find someone to help you.

I found a wonderful body-talk healer in the first few weeks who was able to bring me out of the state of terror I was in so that I could start healing myself. You cannot help yourself in certain states, and this is okay. Thinking we need to do everything alone is another aspect of the ego that leads to resistance to growth and healing.

11. There is more, much more, to life than what we are aware of right now. What we currently know as humans is not all there is to know. Believe this. It is hubris to think otherwise. And it is such a relief to deeply come to believe this and approach life with this attitude. Believe in something bigger than you that you can trust. This can create the safety net—the strength—that allows you to feel fully.

Because if there is any part of us that does not trust life, we will not be able to fully let go. One of my ways of building this belief is to just be in (and witness) nature. It is often so magnificent that it makes me deeply believe that there is something more, something good and powerful that is creating all this world and life.

12. You are not alone. The feeling of separation and loneliness was at the core of my suffering—a sort of terror of the emptiness inside. I’m still working on this one but am now aware that it is the fear that has driven me since I was a child. Rupert Spira explains it saying, “The distinction between mind and matter is felt at the level of human experience as the separation between ourselves and all objects and others, and it is the cause of the existential sense of lack and the fear of disappearance or death that characterises and motivate the separate self or ego.”

Okay, he’s quite theoretical to read, but he’s saying that it’s this false separation we feel that drives most of our needs and wantings, and if we can just get to a place where we no longer feel this false sense of separation, we will no longer be driven by the ego.

But how to do this? Approach that fear. This is why the spiritual path is the most courageous path we will ever take because it is about facing our deepest fear, and I can tell you that I have found this at times terrifying beyond anything I could ever imagine.

But if we do find the means to approach it safely, rather than finding emptiness inside, we discover within us all the things we are searching for externally in life: certainty, solidity, profound safety, the deepest sense of self, tranquillity, and infinite love. To quote my favourite one last time (David R. Hawkins), once you have reached this place you will know because “all searches have ended.”

~

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