What Does It Mean to Accept Anxiety?

There’s a paradox when it comes to getting unstuck or managing* excess anxiety. It’s only when you accept the anxiety or discomfort — when you allow it to be there — that it stops preventing you from moving forward. People get stuck when trying to change if they’re fighting against the anxiety or distress the change causes.

*Brief interruption: I hate when people say they “manage” their anxiety. Anxiety is a normal emotion, yet we’d never say I’m learning to manage my happiness. They accept their happiness. When we’re managing, we’re still in the business of “doing” something with the feeling versus just letting it be there. But I digress.

Accepting anxiety means you’re allowing it to be there. What do we mean by this? It means that instead of doing something with the discomfort you’re feeling, generally in the hopes of getting rid of it, you want to do the opposite. Just let it be there while you go on living.

Why Do You Want to Accept and Allow Anxiety?

First, anxiety is a normal emotion just like all of your other emotions. Emotions are temporary internal experiences like indigestion and gas. They are neither good nor bad: some are pleasant to experience and others not so much. From now on, let’s group all of the uncomfortable emotions into “distress.” Whether it’s fear, sadness, anxiety, they all cause us distress. 

Second, it’s the involvement with your distress (feeling uncomfortable) that makes it strong and more persistent. It sends the message to your brain that this “thing,” whatever it is, is so important that your brain needs to mark it. Your brain then stays vigilant and sends you more messages when it experiences said discomfort. You’re teaching your brain.

Let’s say you woke up feeling slightly nauseous. You had some abdominal discomfort and feel off. Your immediate thought is that you’ve contracted a GI virus and that you’ll have more intense symptoms at work. You don’t have sick days, however, so you head into work.

If you want to make the sensations more intense (and, if you’re really good, get yourself to vomit), keep checking to see if they’re there. Keep checking to see if you feel sick … sicker, keep checking in with yourself to see if you feel more or less off, ask your friends and family how they feel and if they’ve heard of anyone who’s had a GI bug, Google your symptoms, take stomach meds “just in case,” go to the bathroom every time you feel a cramp “just in case.”

Have you ever heard the phrase “Where your attention goes, your energy flows” or “what you resist, persists?” Case in point. 

It’s not that allowing the anxiety will make it disappear, we don’t do it for that outcome. We do it b/c the other option makes it worse. We’re trying not to make the situation worse. 

How Do I Allow Anxiety?

Allowing looks like acknowledging the sensations are there. You feel off — you may be getting sick, and you may not be functioning at your best today. 

And then focus back on living. 

You’re not trying hard not to feel a certain way. There’s no effort with allowing. You accept what is, even if it sucks, so there’s no fight. Trust that if the symptoms get worse, you’ll know and will act accordingly. Until then, the focus is outside your body. 

The less we “do” with our symptoms, the better unless there is a clear and present need. Trust that you’ll know if that happens. You don’t need to compulsively check to see, and worrying about it doesn’t prevent it from happening. 

Is Allowing the Same as Distraction?

I may know what you’re thinking. 

Isn’t focusing on work distracting, and we’re not supposed to be distracting? I get asked this A LOT. 

I can answer it in one word: mindset. 

When we’re allowing, our attitude is, “The thoughts and feelings can be there, and I’m choosing not to pay attention to them.” With distraction, the attitude is, “I really hate how I’m feeling, so I’m going to furiously distract myself to try and make myself feel better.” 

This method isn’t for everyone, but if you’re someone who wants to change and finds themself stuck, it may be your missing key. I go deep into the paradox of just doing nothing in my new book, Just Do Nothing: A Paradoxical Guide to Getting Out of Your Way. Download the first chapter for free now. In it, you’ll find the science behind the method and actionable steps you can take.