"What you resist, persists. What you embrace, dissolves."
People often try to suppress or distract themselves from their anxiety. From my personal and professional experience, however, I have found that one of the best ways to help ease anxiety is to allow it to be there. Consider the metaphor of trying to submerge a beach ball underwater: the more you try to force it down, the more it will shoot back up into the air, but if you just allow it to be there, it will eventually float away.
Anxiety is simply your body's response to your mind perceiving a threat to your safety. This threat can be a real or imagined, and it can relate to your sense of physical or emotional safety. Your mind doesn't know the difference, it just knows to activate your survival responses, as in Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn. As long as you are not in actual danger, it can help to recognize that your fear is real, but the danger is not. You don't need to resist your anxiety or frantically try to make it go away. In fact, doing so can signal to your brain that there is something wrong, which will only increase your feelings of anxiety.
To allow your anxiety, try the tips below:
Name your anxiety. Neutrally acknowledging that your anxiety is present is the first step to accepting that it's there. However, it's helpful to acknowledge that you are not your anxiety -- your anxiety is only a part of your inner experience. Rather than telling yourself, "I am anxious," try describing your experience with statements like, "I'm noticing feelings of anxiety," or "I'm feeling sensations of pressure in my chest."
Make space for your anxiety. Resisting anxiety can look like holding your breath, tensing your muscles, and avoiding "feeling" your anxiety. Communicate to your body and mind that you are safe and accepting of the anxiety by locating it in your body, observing the sensations accompanying it, breathing into it, and relaxing your muscles. Remember, accepting something doesn't mean you approve of it or like it; it just means you are not going to get into a power struggle with it.
Understand your anxiety symptoms. Your physical anxiety symptoms can feel less scary and out of control if you educate yourself about how they relate to your body's efforts to protect you from perceived danger. For example, your heart beats faster when you're anxious, not because you're about to have a heart attack, but because it is attempting to get more blood to the muscles that help you run and fight.
Visualize your anxiety. It can be helpful to view your thoughts and emotions as clouds in a sky, leaves on a stream, sushi on a sushi train, or boxes on a conveyor belt. These metaphors emphasize how feelings are temporary and ever-changing, and encourage you to be a mindful observer of your experience as opposed to getting caught up in it.
Practice self-compassion. Offer comfort to the part of you that is experiencing fear in order for it to feel heard, supported, and protected. For example, you may offer this part of yourself statements such as "It's going to be okay," "I am safe," and "This feeling is uncomfortable but I can tolerate this." You can also soothe your nervous system through compassionate touch, such as putting your hands over your heart or stomach, or holding your face in your hands.
Sitting with your feelings can be a challenging task, requiring courage and persistence. With acceptance of your discomfort, however, comes freedom and resilience. I wish you luck in allowing your anxiety!
If you'd like support with anxiety, please feel free to contact me today.
This post draws from concepts from Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dr. Kristin Neff's research on self-compassion. To learn more about ACT, click here. To learn more about Dr. Neff's work, click here.
Katie Virga, Associate Marriage & Family Therapist #113323
Supervised & Employed by Alexis Donato, LMFT #44732