“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