I’m seated on a flight soaring tens of thousands of feet above the ground. The plane abruptly falls several feet and then bounces back up. Suddenly it feels like my heart is racing at the same speed as the aircraft. My hands grip my seat and I feel an uncomfortable sensation rising in my throat. My mind declares, “I can’t handle this.”
Now, I know that turbulence is a normal and expected experience during a flight but that doesn’t stop my brain’s initial reaction. I am no stranger to the uncomfortable emotion that is anxiety. Anxiety is our body’s alarm system, alerting us of potential threats and preparing us to either protect ourselves or flee. Although anxiety plays this important and necessary role, some of us may find that our alarm systems are quite sensitive and have the tendency to react to “false alarms” like flying, being in social situations, or feeling overwhelmed by daily responsibilities.
Because anxiety feels so physically and mentally uncomfortable, it makes sense that we often try to avoid it or get rid of it. Maybe we try breathing exercises, meditation, or only participating in situations that feel safe- but it seems that the feeling always persists. This isn’t because it’s hopeless. This is because 1) the harder we try to get rid of or suppress anxiety, the more distressing it can feel. And 2) because we’re human, we will never be able to completely rid ourselves from the emotion. However, we can change our relationship with it. Here are a few ways we can start to mindfully move through anxiety, rather than run from it.
Observe, Describe, and Allow
When we start to experience the uncomfortable sensations associated with anxiety, our minds quickly jump to interpret the information. “I can’t handle this.” “I’m going to panic.” “This is too overwhelming.” This leads to higher levels of anxiety and a strong urge to escape or avoid the feelings so that we can quickly feel better. However, what we know is that while avoidance decreases discomfort in the short-term, it can increase feelings of anxiety over time and lead to the belief that we are unable to handle anxiety-provoking situations. We are much more capable than we give ourselves credit! When we start to feel that knot in our stomach or rising sense of dread, our goal is to first just observe- to notice and watch with curiosity, and then to describe what we’re noticing in neutral, factual terms. “I notice a feeling of pressure in my throat and stomach. My heart is beating slightly faster.” This practice allows us to slow down and notice what we’re experiencing without the quick judgements our mind can make.
Once we have named the experience, the next step is to allow. Although the feelings and sensations may be uncomfortable, they also cannot physically harm us. The most significant harm occurs when anxiety drives our behavior and takes us away from our lives. We can use a script along the lines of “I can let this sensation be here. I can handle feeling a pressure in my throat and stomach. I can tolerate my heart beating faster.” We’re not trying to make the feelings go away. Instead, we are acknowledging the reality that our body feels physically anxious in the moment and that this can be uncomfortable but okay. Maybe you imagine that you’re making space for these sensations, allowing them to stay for a while until they pass.
Approach and be Present
So let’s say we’ve practiced observing, describing, and allowing the anxious feelings we’re experiencing. The next goal is to approach and fully engage in the activity or situation. This does not mean that we won’t experience discomfort. In fact, it might be very difficult to choose to move towards what makes you anxious. The reason to approach our anxiety is so that we can engage more fully in our lives. I could avoid flying- it would certainly decrease my chances of experiencing turbulence or a plane crash, but then I would also miss out on all of the joys that travel can bring.
While in an anxiety-provoking situation, our minds may start to focus on uncomfortable bodily sensations or “what-if” thoughts. We then can practice being present by naming what’s happening and shifting our attention back to the physical environment and task at hand. This could go something like this: “My anxiety is worrying that the plane will crash. My mind wants to focus on the fact that my heart is beating faster. I can be present by shifting my attention back to the movie I was looking forward to watching, while allowing my body to feel a bit uncomfortable right now.” Notice that we are not trying to quickly feel better or intentionally trying to calm down. Instead, we practice engaging in the situation as we would normally choose to while allowing the anxious thoughts and sensations to be there in the background. This allows us to learn that we can tolerate discomfort and handle anxiety-provoking situations, which often leads to lower feelings of anxiety over time.
As humans we will always experience anxiety in our lives but by changing our relationship with anxiety instead of running from it, our lives can become so much bigger.