This week, we welcome the lovely Rev. Connie L. Habash, LMFT, author of the book Awakening from Anxiety: A Spiritual Guide to Living a More Calm, Confident, and Courageous Life, to the blog. Connie is a California-based licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, an ordained Interfaith minister, and a fellow highly sensitive person.
Her work has been featured on Elephant Journal, New York Times bestselling author Mike Dooley’s TUT website, and quoted in places like Reader’s Digest, Huffington Post and NBCNews.com. She also regularly leads retreats, workshops, online courses, and spiritual community gatherings.
Reading Awakening from Anxiety gave me some real aha moments as an HSP who can often overthink and overanalyze. So, it’s a great pleasure to have Connie here and to get to have this conversation about how highly sensitive people can awaken from anxiety.
Ritu: Welcome to the blog Connie! It’s so great to have you here. It was lovely reading your book Awakening from Anxiety. As a highly sensitive person with a tendency to ruminate, it gave me flashes of insight that felt so clarifying. This is such an amazing book for both HSPs and non-HSPs alike!
Before we begin talking about the book, could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your work and your journey until now? I know you have had an amazing range of experiences and your spiritual path has taken you through many spiritual traditions, including mystical Christianity, Taoism, and Hinduism & yoga philosophy. Could you talk a little bit about these experiences and give us a peek into your life?
Connie: That’s a long story, Ritu, but I’ll try to summarize! I have always been spiritually inclined. I remember as a child looking out the window through my shutters at the stars and wondering where I really came from and what this life is all about. The movie Star Wars really impacted me with the idea of “the Force” – now that made sense to me! I felt there was something that connected us all – and that eventually transformed into my awareness of the Divine as everywhere present, in everything and everyone.
When I developed an interest in psychology in college, I had to include the spiritual. It just didn’t make sense otherwise, as it is such an important part of who we are. I chose a graduate program that not only focused on mental and emotional well-being but spiritual too (and also somatic, as yoga entered the picture around the same time).
I became a synthesizer, integrating psychotherapeutic systems as well as spiritual paths into whole approaches that had universal truths. Yoga and yoga philosophy certainly were a big part of this approach, as it looks at the whole human being.
This desire to understand and explore many spiritual traditions and find their common threads led me to become an interfaith minister in addition to a psychotherapist and yoga teacher, and I felt a new chapter unfolded for me. All these “hats” I wear come together in Awakening from Anxiety.
Ritu: Thank you for sharing, Connie. It’s so interesting to learn about your journey! In Awakening from Anxiety, you talk about how “spirituality is messy.” The true spiritual path is not about trying to escape so-called negative emotions and stuffing them but about feeling our way through them to the other side.
You also talk about the “flight to light” that a lot of sensitive folks (and non-HSPs as well) tend to do as they try to deal with their messy emotions. I know I have done this in the past. Could you talk a little about this and why it doesn’t work? What are some of the common faulty beliefs that you see in your own practice that hold highly sensitive people back from truly dealing with their anxiety?
Connie: “Flight to Light” refers to the tendency for many on the spiritual path to avoid the “dark” stuff – all those yucky, uncomfortable emotions and issues that we tend to label as “bad”, like anger or fear. It’s also known as “spiritual bypassing.”
When we avoid what is up for us, even if it’s a “negative” emotion, and just try to focus on the “light” and good things, we stuff down those emotions. They fester and wait until they can pop up again. They drain our energy, too.
Most importantly, those “negative” emotions (like anxiety!), when worked with mindfully as I lay out in the book, can actually be doorways into greater awareness and more lasting inner peace. By learning to embrace what is and listen to its message, we transform and release it.
Some of the other faulty beliefs include believing that we’re safer by leaving the body (that sends the body into stress and anxiety!) and taking on the feelings of others around us. We may believe that it’s the compassionate thing to do, to feel others’ feelings, but we can be compassionate and not have to run all that emotional pain through our system.
We’ll be much healthier, calm, and more capable if we learn healthy energetic boundaries. I have 6 “mistakes”, or faulty concepts for spiritual and sensitive persons, in the 2nd section in my book.
Ritu: One of the parts of Awakening from Anxiety that I loved was how you talked about dissociation and how it creates anxiety. I want to thank you for this crystal-clear realization I had recently where I thought about how one of the big reasons for why I tend to feel other people’s emotions in my body is because I am often dissociated.
Sometimes, it’s as if my awareness is not inside my body. And when I am not home, it’s then that other people’s feelings flood it.
In the past few years, I have thought a lot about this and wondered why is it that sometimes, other people’s feelings don’t affect me at all and why sometimes, they just overtake me. I knew that when my well was filled, I could stay in my energy.
But I hadn’t clearly thought about how, at those other times when I was flooded, I was actually dissociated from my body (although I’ve read about dissociation) Something about your book crystallized this awareness for me. So, thank you!
Could you talk a little bit about this and how our nervous system kicks into high gear when we are dissociated? I think learning about what’s happening in our bodies will be so helpful for highly sensitive people who can find emotions filling up too quickly and sometimes catching them by surprise.
Connie: Here’s a metaphor to help understand what happens in our nervous system when we dissociate, or “leave” our body. We all dissociate from time to time, like when we drive down the freeway and can’t remember passing the last few exits. That means we were in our heads, thinking, planning, imaging, etc. That is a mild form of dissociation.
But when we start leaving our bodies and going into our heads, imaginations, or even into spiritual states of consciousness as a strategy to deal with life – when we’re doing it a lot, and not really present here in our physical selves and surroundings, the body pays the toll.
Imagine that you’re on a cruise liner, far out at sea. You’re having a great time, laying out on the deck, playing games, enjoying the buffet, and looking forward to the next port. But then you hear that no one is at the helm.
The captain is gone, the navigator isn’t there, no one is in there, whatever it is called where the ship’s wheel is. How would you feel? Wouldn’t you be scared? I’d be running to the rails, looking to see if we’re going to hit something.
Everyone would freak out. Because you know that there are dangers out there and someone needs to be paying attention and steering the ship.
That’s how your body feels when you’re not in it. It freaks out because no one is at the wheel. And so it goes on high alert. Your sympathetic nervous system, responsible for fight or flight, kicks in because SOMEBODY has to be watching out, and you, your Conscious Self, isn’t doing it, so the body has to.
Adrenaline kicks in. Tension arises. If you do this often, you start to see chronic stress, anxiety, tension, and possibly all manner of physical problems from the body being in that level of stress all the time.
The first step of the solution is becoming present in the moment, and the second step is to come back into the body. It’s a big part of my personal work and my work with clients, and a focus of the book.
Ritu: Thank you, Connie. You explained that so well. I was also wondering if you had any specific suggestions for not dissociating for highly sensitive people who have had trauma in their past.
I think trauma hits us especially hard. We process the meaning of what’s happened to us deeply. We feel the feelings deeply. Pain gets lodged into our bodies and freezes us up. I think any trauma with a capital T (like physical abuse, sexual assault, having grown up in a war-torn area of the world) does need a therapist’s skillful help to heal.
But for those who still haven’t found the right therapist or maybe can’t afford therapy right now, are there any suggestions you might give to help bring awareness back to the body in a way that’s not retraumatizing? How can someone with a fractured relationship to their body start feeling safe in it once again?
Connie: That is a sensitive subject, isn’t it? Because trauma really does affect us, it takes a while to heal it, and usually, we need someone else to help along the way. It is a whole new reintegration of our sense of self and how we process emotions and experiences.
I heartily agree that a therapist is essential for that healing process through trauma. Support groups can be helpful, too. But something almost anyone can do if they haven’t found the right one yet or can’t afford one yet is to get outdoors, into nature.
Now, I say that, but some people may find it scary to be in nature, too. So start simple and easy. Sit on a park bench, an apartment balcony, or in your yard. Just sit there and be with everything.
Let nature come to you, let the Earth support you. The soil, the rocks, the trees. Lean into a tree and feel its strength. Let the flowers bless you. Nature can be a therapist, too. And truthfully, we need the energies of the Earth, the natural world, to re-regulate our system when it’s been traumatized. The animals can teach us, for they have to recover from trauma all the time.
An excellent book to read about this is “In An Unspoken Voice” by Peter Levine. It has influenced some of my work with healing trauma or intense emotions. Let the Earth support, hold, nurture, and help you through the pain to more peace. It is always there for you.
Ritu: That was such an unexpected and such a lovely suggestion, Connie. And you are so right – for people who feel physically unsafe, going out to a large, deserted park might feel threatening. So, understanding that and connecting with nature in smaller ways is such a great suggestion.
One of the aspects of Awakening from Anxiety that I really enjoyed and that makes it very accessible and practical are the number of experiential exercises you’ve included.
You don’t just talk about concepts like embodiment and centering, you give exercises to help readers feel and have that experience for themselves and practice that skill. Could you share one of these exercises with my readers that will help them get a taste of what the book is all about? Is there something that you use regularly in your life or have found especially useful?
Connie: How about I give you a bonus exercise that isn’t in the book? This is my favorite practice, for many reasons. It grounds and centers me, calms my nervous system, and helps me feel connected to the natural world. And I was describing a bit of it above, but now I’ll elaborate more.
It’s called “sit spot,” as taught by Jon Young in the book, What the Robin Knows. Most mornings, I simply go outside and sit in the front yard. You can do this anywhere outdoors; in a forest, on your apartment balcony, in a garden or public park.
Engage the awareness of your surroundings with your senses. What do you see, and hear? How does the air feel on your skin, or the sunlight? Can you touch something natural near you? What do you smell? Observe the birds, the squirrels, maybe the dogs walking by with their humans. Take in the plants and trees near you, noticing their leaves, trunks, textures, colors.
The more you are present with whatever is around you, and feeling your feet on the ground, the more you can relax into the present moment. Let the mind become quiet, and the senses immerse you in presence. It is my favorite practice to start my day, and it is my salvation at the end of a stressful one.
Ritu: How lovely! That’s a great practice. One of the concepts that I find tricky to understand is energetic boundaries. I sense energy, so I know they are real. For example, when I interact with some people, I can feel when they have a wall up. Only this much in, and no further.
These are the ones who often have very rigid rules for themselves and others. They are good at organizing and structuring but not so good at being vulnerable.
Then, with some people who are more enduring types who have pulled their energy inwards, it’s hard for me to sense their energy. I can walk into a room and not realize they are there. For myself, I think that my energetic boundaries keep on shifting. Sometimes, they are intact. Sometimes, they are diffuse.
I know when you are talking about energetic boundaries, you are not talking about putting ourselves in a bubble but instead extending our energy out to claim our space. This is an area highly sensitive people often have trouble with.
Do you think creating an energetic boundary is related to intention and visualization primarily? Is it about feeling safe to express who we are? Do we have to keep extending our energy out intentionally until it becomes an automatic process and second nature?
Connie: An energetic boundary is related to intention and visualization. It is also related to claiming your space here in the world, which is also an intention. That you are worthy of this space and it belongs to you. No one else is permitted in this energetic field that is yours.
By claiming this as yours, you create a safe space for yourself. So as a result, you may feel safer to express yourself.
It does take practice and some effort at first, but down the road, it will become more second nature, although honestly it always does take awareness. There is not really a point where we don’t have to attend to it anymore. It’s like brushing your teeth – it’s energetic hygiene for yourself, and after a while, you simply do it because you know it’s good for you, and you’re reasonably adept at it.
The benefits of the energetic boundary are many and well worth the effort, especially for HSPs!
Ritu: A practice that you talk about in the book that I found very useful is around taking an empowering action when we get anxious. You explain how this is not always just taking the opposite action of a normally-fearful response. In fact, sometimes, our anxiety is telling us something valuable and we need to consider it and then take the next step.
Could you talk a little bit about this and give us some examples? I think sometimes, we get stuck in anxiety because there’s something in it that feels protective. Although it’s illusory at times, sometimes, our anxiety is keeping us safe.
Connie: Our anxiety arises to alert us of possible dangers or worries on the road of life. But as we all know, anxiety can become a habit of perception, rather than actually something out there to be concerned about. We are comfortable, in a strange way, with anxiety because it’s familiar and there’s almost a superstition that it keeps us safe.
Listening to our anxiety allows us to hear what message it’s trying to convey. For example, I might have anxiety about meeting new people. The anxiety, on the surface, seems to say, “stay away from new people – they’re dangerous!”
But if I listen more deeply, it may be saying, “I want to meet people in a way that feels safe and appropriate for me.” Well, what might that be? Because if we’re throwing ourselves into situations with tons of people, especially for HSPs, it is no surprise that we feel anxious.
So perhaps we want to meet one new person at a time, for tea. Or maybe we want to meet new people in a small group, with a friend we already know.
The anxiety can tell you how you can more safely meet someone new. It can guide you to an action that is empowering but not foolhardy. Go past the first message that it gives you to the deeper request, the deeper message that anxiety expresses, and find the empowering action in that.
Ritu: What an empowering way to think about anxiety! Thank you for this interview, Connie. It was so great to have this discussion with you. Rumination and anxiety are so common amongst highly sensitive people. Your book is a great resource on how to handle anxiety on the spiritual path and also unearth its hidden messages.
Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t brought up? Also, where can people find you and your work? What’s the best way to connect with you?
Connie: Ritu, you have asked some fantastic questions! I want to remind everyone that you are much bigger than your anxiety. You are a Divine being, an expression of Infinite Intelligence, and when you allow yourself to feel and expand into this spiritual truth, the anxiety will look much smaller and more manageable.
It might even be the doorway through which you walk to become your True Self. Trust in that process, and you’ll get there.
Thanks for having me here on the blog, Ritu! You can find out more about my book, workshops, retreats, and other offerings on my website Awakening Self, and my book is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indiebound. You can contact me at Connie@AwakeningSelf.com I’d love to hear from you!
Original post found here.