The Counterintuitive Way to Cope with Anxiety

You know that moment, when your thoughts start racing and your body tenses up? You feel restless and you can’t focus on anything else because you are so overcome with worry, fear, or nervousness. Your stomach might even feel a little queasy.

Anxiety has helped human beings survive since the old ages. It has a purpose. It's there to warn us of danger and to physically prepare us to run or fight. Sometimes the experience of anxiety does it’s job and leads you to act on a problem. Mild anxiety can even help us do better on exams, performances, or presentations.  

But for many people, anxiety can become consuming amidst uncertainty, loss, conflict, vulnerability, or fear. It can feel out of proportion to the context and be paralyzing, leaving you feeling lost at how to manage it. 

When anxiety hits, you might be compelled to do anything to escape it, which can lead to avoiding situations you'd like to be involved with or issues you need to address. This can hinder your ability to enjoy life, take on challenges, socialize, address conflict, or be effective in relationships. If you avoid or escape and then feel calmer, this teaches your brain that avoidance must be the answer to your anxiety. But then you stay stuck in a cycle, always avoiding in order to control the anxiety.

Avoidance reinforces anxiety.

It’s common to want to get away from anxiety. No one likes it. But if you notice in the title, this post is about coping not avoiding.

Coping means facing your anxiety head on. Rather than push it away, it’s important to sit with it, to welcome it, to be aware of it. This is imperative if you want to face the things that trigger an anxious response.

I know. This feels so counterintuitive! 

This is where the popular term “mindfulness” comes in. Many people think mindfulness means emptying your thoughts and clearing your mind.

Nope!

In fact, it’s actually the opposite. It’s about ADDING to your thoughts.

Thank God because emptying your mind is incredibly difficult when you’re feeling anxious!

How Do You Do It?

When you’re feeling anxious

  1. Take a moment (or some moments) to notice what’s happening. 
  2. Name what you’re feeling emotionally. For instance, you might say, “There’s that anxiety again. I’ve felt this before. It’s familiar. I also notice I feel sad and even a little angry.” 
  3. Notice the sensations in your body. Name them (tense shoulders, topsy turvy stomach). 
  4. Observe your worrisome thoughts. Imagine them on a ticker tape, scrolling by as you read them. What are they? Are there many worries or just one? What do they say you’re most afraid of?
  5. See if you are aware of what you are avoiding. Just notice it. Try not to make judgments about your feelings or thoughts.
  6. Now, begin to be aware of your five senses. What do you see in the room around you? What do you hear? What does your skin feel? (a cool breeze, a soft fabric?) What do you smell? Take a breath and notice your body sensations again.
  7. Now take note of what thoughts are present besides the anxious ones. Is there anything that feels stable in your life? Anything that you are interested in? A book you are reading? A good friend?

Do this all while allowing the anxiety to be present.

If it helps, you can write down your observations while you’re making them—as a journal entry or even as a more visual/artistic collage of words. You can even draw your body and position the words across your body where you feel them or use colors to represent your emotions.

Allowing yourself to be exposed to the feelings of anxiety without trying to avoid them, without telling yourself you shouldn't have them, allows your brain and your body to learn that the feelings themselves aren’t dangerous. With practice, you can learn to feel more in control when anxiety exists. By incorporating awareness of your environment, you exercise your brain into thinking more flexibly. You teach it how to be aware of other things while anxiety is present so that anxiety doesn’t become the full focus, blurring out the rest of your life.

Be careful not to use this exercise to continue avoiding situations you need to address or would like to engage in. If your anxiety really is warning you of danger, by all means listen and stay safe. But if your anxiety is just saying, "Hey, this is a little uncomfortable and I'm nervous," but you know moving forward is necessary for progress, then use the skills to step toward the challenge or difficulty and let anxiety tag along, knowing that it has it's place and purpose. 

Usually, anxiety will come in waves and it will eventually dissipate on it’s own. Allowing the anxiety to be present is the only way to learn this. The more comfortable you get with it’s presence, the less it will take over your life.

There are other approaches to addressing anxiety and if you need support, please reach out to your doctor or a therapist. Also, some anxiety can be caused by medical conditions or medication, so it's good to rule that out. 

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About Me

I am a licensed mental health counselor in New York City with a psychotherapy office in the neighborhood of Murray Hill in Manhattan. Find out more about me here. I'd love to hear from you. Email me if there's a topic you'd like me to write about.