The Mighty Logo

How Buddhist Teachings Can Help Manage Anxiety

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Like many dudes, when I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, I started to search the black hole of the internet to find articles about how best to “cure” it. I quickly learned that anxiety is not “curable” and those who say it is are usually trying to make money off of your anxiety.

It also was suggested that meditation was something I should look into. While researching meditation, I predictably was led to information about Buddhism and anxiety. At first, I would think, “I just want to meditate, not convert religions!” But, I did start to read some snippets about Buddhism and what it talked about started to appeal to me more and more. Not necessarily the religious connotations, but the way of seeing the world and living your life.

I was brought up Christian, and I do battle every Sunday to get my kids to attend Sunday school. However, I have never been what you would call faithful. I have always had some questions. Not the place to get into them, here, but let’s just say I like the movie more than the book.

Buddhism and Anxiety

I began to dive deep into Buddhism and anxiety, and Buddhist teachings, but focused on modern interpretations, not religious texts. One of the best introductions to Buddhist thought I read was Robert Wright’s book, “Why Buddhism Is True.” The book did a good job connecting modern thought and life to Buddha’s teachings. It also taught me that much of what the Buddha taught was not a God-centered religion. Buddha was a Hindu, so some of what he believed came from that religion (reincarnation, karma, etc.). In my view, people who “practice” Buddhism are followers of the Buddha’s teachings, with a side of ancient Hinduism (that’s how I see it. If you disagree, by all means).

I do believe that the Buddha’s teachings were largely secular, and you can incorporate them into your daily life. I think you could be a Buddhist-Christian, Buddhist-Jewish, Buddhist-Atheist, or like me, a Buddhist-Agnostic.

***Don’t worry, I had to look up those terms too.

For me, it was learning about the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths of life that really helped me to use Buddhist thought to help manage my anxiety. Each of the four noble truths has a place in my Buddhism and anxiety:

1. Suffering is a part of life

The Buddha believed that suffering is a part of all lives. You cannot escape suffering if you want to live in this world. This was a revelation to me, somehow. It helped me to understand that anxiety, and other “shit happen to me” stuff was all a part of the ebb and flow of life. I have always believed that “this too shall pass,” and it helped me to solidify that in Buddhism.

2. The cause of suffering is usually want and desire

This was a hard one for me to get on board with. I did not think that my anxiety, or my dad’s heart attack, were caused by me wanting a new car. However, the more I learned about Buddhism and anxiety, it’s not the action, it’s the way it makes me feel that brings suffering.

This one is all about perspective. I say I “suffer” from my anxiety, because I want to be normal. The “suffering” goes away if I accept my anxiety as my way of life. My dad dying caused “suffering” because we wanted him to still be alive and living with us. If you are able to accept death as a natural end to life, could you mitigate the “suffering.”

This is hard, because your anxiety, the symptoms of it, and the millions of other things that make you suffer, are unavoidable. Sometimes feeling sad about them is unavoidable as part of the human condition.

However, Buddha believed that suffering is inevitable, temporary, and possibly—not easily—relieved by your perspective on the suffering, or letting go of your wants.

3. The end of suffering is enlightenment

So if you or I think this Buddhist game is easy, we’re SOL! If you can master ending your suffering altogether, then you will have “enlightenment.” That’s the Lombardi Trophy of Buddhism! Except, most practicing Buddhists don’t plan to get there. It’s too hard.

Buddhist monks across the globe—you know, the ones who spend all their time meditating and cleaning—try their whole lives to achieve enlightenment and don’t. It’s not necessarily about eliminating all of your suffering, because it is a part of life. It is about following a path that will lessen it.

4. There’s a 8 point plan

The last noble truth is that there is a path you can follow to eliminate suffering and gain enlightenment. Again, in practice it’s going to be black diamond level hard, but remember C’s get degrees, and even a little change of thought can help to eliminate suffering.

There’s stuff in there about meditation (prayer), being nice to your neighbor, clean living and clean thoughts….all things a lot of other religions get behind as well.

Really, for me, this has nothing to do with religion. I went looking for a little self-help on how to live my life and manage my anxiety, and I came across the thoughts of a guy named Siddhārtha Gautama—the Buddha. He was just a rich kid trying to figure out life.

Buddha didn’t want people to worship him, idolize him or really even remember him when he was gone. His ideas were just so simple and impactful that people merged his beliefs into their own religious beliefs. You can incorporate his ideas into your own beliefs, anxiety management and life.

This is not about converting you, it’s about opening your mind up to some things that may help you as they did me.

He won’t care! He just wanted what was best for people…..or he didn’t want it. Still a little confusing.

I’ve found many books and internet sources helpful in my research into Buddhist thought and my anxiety. Here are a few resources:

  1. Buddhism for Dudes,” by Gerry Strebling: A pretty simplified explainer from a former Marine.
  2. The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have,” by Mark Nepo: This cancer survivor wrote some introspective, buddh-ish thoughts for each day of the year. It’s really great.
  3. He’s kind of hippy-dippy, but he speaks pretty plainly in his videos, podcasts and books. He’s my go-to on a lot of Buddhist thought.
  4. very polished Buddhism journal. Sign up for daily dharma emails.They are good ways to get you in the right frame of mind each day.

Getty image by fizkes

Originally published: February 25, 2021
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home