How to Mindfully Sit with Anxiety

5 Ways to Sit with Anxious Feelings

“Nothing so much prevents our being natural as the desire to seem so.” – François Duc de La Rochefoucauld

If you want to deal with anxious feelings more effectively, it is quite helpful to begin to mindfully change your relationship with anxiety. When you learn to think about anxiety differently and respond to it in the moment with greater intention, it exerts less powerful control over your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. When anxiety feels overwhelming, powerful, or unsettling there can be a tendency to reject or resist the anxious feelings. A paradox often occurs in this scenario… in the struggle to deny and fight against anxious feelings, they often grow larger and even more powerful.

It is inevitable that you will experience anxious feelings at different points in your life. Anxiety can be a wonderfully useful and motivating force, alerting you to important actions that need to be taken. It can also become a destructive and debilitating enemy that is dreaded and feared. Given the inevitability of anxious feelings, it is only logical to be prepared to handle them skillfully and mindfully when they do occur. When you are prepared to use anxiety constructively and effectively, it is no longer an enemy, but rather a “signal” intended to alert you to the presence of something in your internal or external environment.

When you learn how to have a new relationship with anxious feelings by developing the ability to “sit with” and tolerate them, anxiety is no longer frightening. Imagine your anxiety personified as a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. The toddler may cry, scream, and beat his fists, demanding your immediate action and attention. Now imagine yourself with the ability to sit calmly and mindfully in the presence of this raging toddler. Just as no tantrum – no matter how severe – lasts “forever,” neither does your anxiety. When you allow it the space that it needs to simply be, it will dissipate.

Alidina (2011) explains that “by maintaing a mindful, calm, gentle awareness, eventually and very gradually the anxiety may begin to settle.” Even if your anxious feelings don’t magically disappear, they will decrease in their levels of intensity. When you settle into a calm, open, and accepting attitude that is no longer fighting against the anxiety, your experience will become less of a struggle. Mindfulness enables you to increase your sensitivity to and awareness of the presence of anxious feelings as they occur. When you become aware of their presence, you can turn towards them rather than away from them. As you actually welcome and allow the anxiety to exist, you let go of the struggle that only serves to intensify anxiety and other emotions that can leave you feeling drained.

It’s not always necessary to face your anxiety head on, particularly when you are in the early stages of learning to develop a new relationship with anxious feelings. Allow the seed to grow in your mind that you are committed to forming a new relationship with your anxiety. This idea can be triggered the next time that you experience anxious feelings, reminding you that this is an opportunity to respond to your anxious feelings in a new and different way.

Mindfulness Exercise: Sitting with Anxiety

When you notice yourself experiencing anxious feelings over the course of the next few days, weeks, and months, try out the following five ways to “sit” with those anxious feelings. Notice the ways in which your experience changes as a result of responding to your anxiety in different ways. Observe any differences as you allow yourself to “sit” with and tolerate the anxious feelings.

(1) Observe the ways in which you normally react when anxiety occurs.

Or, if you feel anxious a great deal of the time, mindfully notice your current attitude toward your anxiety. Try to avoid judging or labeling the way that you typically deal with anxious feelings and simply observe and describe with full mindfulness. Work toward radical acceptance of the anxious feelings.

(2) Consider the possibility of a more mindful attitude to take toward the anxious feelings.

Imagine what it might look like and feel like to relate to your anxiety with greater openness, curiosity, and acceptance. How might your experience with anxious feelings change if you were to adopt this mindful attitude? What are the costs associated with maintaining a fearful or rigid posture toward your anxiety? What might it take for you to make the first step toward opening yourself up emotionally to your anxious feelings?

(3) Allow yourself to feel the anxiety for about one minute with as much love, warmth and compassion as you can.

Mindfully guide your breath as you breathe into the anxious feelings. As you observe anxiety building, mindfully slow your breathing and focus on visualizing yourself breathing out the anxious energy and emotion. Notice the ways in which your experience in the moment changes when you open yourself up to experiencing anxiety with kindness and warmth. Focus on giving yourself the same compassion and kindness that you would give to a loved one who was experiencing intense anxiety.

(4) Observe the color, shape, and texture of the anxious feelings.

This observation increases your mindful curiosity about your emotions, rather than distancing yourself and suppressing the unwanted emotions. Where do you notice the anxious feelings manifesting themselves in your body? What bodily sensations do you observe when you experience the anxiety? Notice if the intensity of the anxious feelings increases or decreases when you direct mindfully nonjudgmental and accepting awareness to them. Begin to explore your anxiety in the middle ground between running from it and diving into it. Allow yourself to be curious and open – explore the anxious feelings with compassionate awareness.

(5) Watch the feeling as if it were a beautiful tree or flower.

Allow your mindful attention to be filled with an inner sense of warmth and curiosity. Imagine what it is like to look upon your anxiety as you might look upon something beautiful or fascinating. Breathe into the sensations that you experience and open yourself up to allowing your anxious feelings to serve as your teacher. What are those emotions trying to show you about yourself, others, or the world? See what it might be like to relate to those formerly disavowed feelings with open arms.

When you learn to sit with uncomfortable emotions, such as anxiety, you begin to see that the emotions themselves are truly not the enemy or something to be feared. It is often your own reactions and judgments that you have to the emotions that make them seem so unpleasant or frightening. It is possible to develop a new relationship with emotions that seem unpleasant through looking upon them in a completely new way. An emotion like anxiety is inevitable in life – it is in your best interest to relate to the emotion with greater wisdom and mindful intention. Remember that no emotion lasts “forever.” When you sit with the emotion and allow it to be, it will change and evolve. How can you deal with your anxious feelings with greater mindful awareness?

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Alidina, S. (2011). Mindfulness for dummies. West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Featured image: I Has a Tude! by LadyDragonflyCC / CC BY 2.0

4 Responses to How to Mindfully Sit with Anxiety
  1. Susan
    May 13, 2013 | 9:21 am

    Thank you for writing this. I’m dealing with some stress and anxiety. This article helped to calm my nerves and not get overwhelmed by anxiety. Thank you! Now…I just need to practice this.

    • Laura
      May 16, 2013 | 9:03 am

      Susan – I’m glad to hear that you found this article useful. Dealing with stress and anxiety can be very challenging… the good news is that sitting with anxiety does get easier with practice. Mindfulness exercises are helpful for many people learning to tolerate and accept uncomfortable emotions. Thank you for your comment.

  2. Victoria Rockliffe
    June 2, 2013 | 6:35 am

    I’ve just read your blog on How to Sit Mindfully with Anxiety, having googled Cognitive Fusion (I’ve been reading one of Russ Harris’ books on ACT). Your article here struck such a chord with me, I really like it, or maybe its just very timely with where I’m currently at… (caught in acute anxiety/fear cycle at home, mainly due to noise, not noise I can complain about, life noises from neighbours, children in the gardens, etc). I can feel myself stiffen up with this anxiety and my every muscle says Move! Leave! which I usually do, retreating to the smallest room in the flat, the one I feel safest in. But this means I dont’ get anything done, and giving in to this fear merely accentuates it, I suspect. But I wanted to ask what you might suggest about the physical feeling of fear? I have a high startle reflex and it is a huge handicap. The people who live in the flat above me are very nice but they are very heavy footed! and often there are thuds and crashes from above, which make me jump and send my blood pressure racing, adding to the physical feeling of fear. I would dearly like to get rid of this startle reflex but know I probably cannot. Yet how does one manage it? It has such a dramatic physical effect, and each time, I feel more worn down, in trying to manage it, to continue doing what I’m doing in the kitchen or wherever it is, with all this noise from above. It sometimes sounds as if they are wearing clogs! or throwing things around! yet in reality all they are probably doing is living life, and rushing around their flat trying to get stuff done, just as I should be, instead of which I’m stuck here paralysed with panic… and longing, just longing for the sound of their feet on the stairs, then the door, and the key in the lock, which signals they are going out. Then the peace and quiet that descends… bliss. But then I start to worry about when they’ll return, or i’ll find the flat downstairs is playing music, or the dog next door is barking or the children at the back are having yet another tantrum (makes my anxiety go sky high, hearing these shouty children, 3 of them aged under 5). You can see how quickly I’m feeling panicked even writing about this. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    • Laura
      June 3, 2013 | 10:33 am

      Victoria – I’m glad to hear that you found my article, “How to Mindfully Sit with Anxiety,” helpful. It sounds like your current experience with anxiety/fear is quite distressing and negatively impacting your quality of life. Anxiety triggers the autonomic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response, releasing adrenaline into the bloodstream. This physical reaction can serve as an incredibly adaptive way to prepare the body to face threatening situations, but sometimes things can get a bit out of whack when stimuli that your mind “knows” aren’t truly threatening (such as the noisy neighbors) trigger severe anxiety/fear.

      Your motivation to actively seek out resources to understand and manage your anxiety is a great strength. It sounds like you are at a place in your life where you are sick and tired of carrying around the weight of persistent anxiety. It is understandable that you feel quite worn down from the physically and emotionally draining nature of the anxiety. It makes sense that you have learned to associate the sounds of the neighbors leaving with “bliss.” I wonder about cultivating strategies to maintain/recreate that blissful state of peace and calm on your own… and even when the neighbors are noisy.

      A good place to begin the process of managing anxiety/fear is acceptance… of course, this does not at all mean giving up or resigning yourself to a life of ongoing anxiety. It sounds like you’re in a place of acceptance as far as accepting that this is your body’s current way of reacting to stressful stimuli. When considering acceptance through the lens of ACT, one of your statements in particular stood out to me: “I would dearly like to get rid of this startle reflex but know I probably cannot.” As you continue reading through Russ Harris’ book on ACT, I hope that some of the ideas surrounding acceptance hit home for you. The desire to get rid of unpleasant things, such as the heightened startle response, can actually make them persist. Strangely enough, by embracing fear/anxiety it is possible to move through it.

      Some people find that attending to physical well-being (nutrition, sleep hygiene, exercise) creates noticeable improvements in overall anxiety levels. Learning coping skills to manage stress/anxiety (progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises, safe place visualization) can also be quite helpful. If you notice that your experience of anxiety/fear persists or increases in severity, support from a mental health professional in your area may provide more in-depth assessment and treatment options.

      I wish you the best and commend you on your bravery for speaking out about your experience and actively seeking support. Thank you for visiting my website and for your comment. Please let me know if I can be of further assistance.

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