By experiencing anxiety, I mean ride out the fear-filled thoughts and feelings, allowing them to be there without trying to make them go away. The spirit of this is really about the practice of being uncomfortable and uncertain WHILE we go on with life. Rather than letting anxiety prevent us from doing things, we practice allowing it to be there as we do those things.
You might be wondering, “why would anyone want to experience anxiety?”
Because when we try to stop or resist an unpleasant emotion, we usually find the emotion strengthens and gets worse. Anxiety is a normal emotion just like happiness, sadness, joy or anger.
“But what about my mantras, weighted blankets, positive self-talk?”
If those things work for you, great. This process is for people who find those things don’t work. For some, those “anxiety relief tips” are really just ways to resist the anxiety, which paradoxically makes it stronger.
What people mean when they say they feel anxious or “have anxiety” refers to the familiar uncomfortable sensations of worry, fear, and dread; nausea, headaches, and stomach butterflies; thoughts of worst-case scenarios, endless “what if” questions, and overwhelming thoughts of “I can’t handle this.”
We then devote increasing amounts of energy trying to prevent those uncomfortable anxious thoughts and feelings. It’s a continuous cycle of trying to make the feeling go away and getting more entangled in the thoughts — which causes more anxiety. So, we try to make the feelings go away … and it repeats.
That’s the gas for this fire. The more you try to solve, figure it out, or get certainty, the more anxious you become and the deeper the hole you dig. It’s exhausting — and ineffective and often ends up in you avoiding something.
For example, let’s say you’re nervous about going to a party post Covid. Your thoughts center around the familiar “what if” questions: “what if it rains, and we hang out indoors? What if there are a lot of people? What if so-and-so isn’t wearing a mask?”
The more you think, the more anxious become. You then try to stop that anxiety, because it’s uncomfortable. You may find yourself making contingency plans for every possible situation, or checking the weather, asking your friends for reassurance, repeatedly Googling risks of being indoors. And so on.
What I’m suggesting is to acknowledge your initial feelings. You’re anxious about going to the party. We then practice being uncertain and uncomfortable by not engaging in all the behaviors to feel better WHILE you go to the party (following CDC guidelines, of course).
The brain learns what we show it by our actions or inactions. If we consistently show it we can experience the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, over time the brain becomes less sensitized to the trigger.
The key is to let those feelings come and go without engaging in them (with, say mantras, weighted blankets, and such).
This happens after we show the brain over and over that by our actions, this situation is not a threat. This is a really important point. And it takes time. The more you do it, the more you learn you can do it (even if you’re anxious). We build confidence in the process.
Certainly, I’m simplifying so much of this for the sake of a blog article, but this is the general idea. Every time we feel anxious, look at it as an opportunity to practice feeling all the thoughts and uncomfortable feelings while you’re living life.
“Oh, I’m feeling anxious. This is uncomfortable, and I’m going to continue on with my day.”
This is a practice, one that sounds simply but isn’t easy. It’s also easier with help, so I always encourage people to seek a professional who can dive deeper into the nitty gritty of this process.