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Assist, Don't Resist: Adventures in Accepting Anxiety

Positively Present - Anxiety Might Look Like
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For as long as I can remember, I've been anxious. During some periods of my life (like now) it's worse. Other times, it's just a faint trace, like someone's perfume lingering on you after a hug. 

For as long as I can remember, I've been trying to elude my anxiety. I've tried almost everything. I've tried mixed drinks and drug cocktails. I've tried sleeping too much and sleeping around. I've tried therapy (which does, to some degree, help) and soul-searching (also helpful, in its navel-gazing way). I've tried shopping and scrolling. I've tried yoga (also useful in the moment) and meditation (albeit, only a handful of times). I've tried snacking and starving. I've tried calming apps and I've read (and probably written!) beat-your-anxiety articles. I've gone for long walks and I've sat by myself in silence and I've tried new things and I've clung to old comforts. Maybe I haven't tried everything, but I've put in a lot of time trying to avoid or quell my anxiety. 

And guess what? I'm still anxious.

Not all the time. And not always in the same way, but it's always there. Maybe there's a part of me that, deep down, doesn't want to let it go. Or maybe I literally cannot let it go. Either way, it seems to be here to stay and, after three and half decades of trying to outrun it, lately I've been thinking... what if I just stopping trying? 

Resisting it obviously hasn't been working for me. Sure, I've been able to dodge anxious feelings by altering my mind or distracting myself, but the anxiety always finds a way to come back, no matter how hard I try. So what if I just accepted in instead? This obviously isn't ground-breaking idea -- the notion of accepting anxiety has been around forever (god knows, I've probably even written about it somewhere), but this is the first time in my life I've actually felt like, hey, maybe I really can just stop resisting this and see what happens. After all, what have I got to lose? 

Acceptance of anything, but particularly of difficult things, is rarely easy, but here are a few things I'm going to try in an attempt to assist, rather than resist, my anxiety. Yes, it seems like a bit of a backwards idea, trying to help my anxiety instead of hinder it, but, at this point, I'm willing to give anything a go! 

 

REFRAME IT

It's only in recent years that I've come to realize how closely connected anxiety and excitement are to one another. If you pay attention, you might find that you feel similar when you're excited and when you're really anxious. So I'm going to try to use that to the best of my ability and try, when possible, to reframe anxiety as excitement. This won't always work, of course, but when it comes to certain things (for example, a speaking event I'm nervous about or a party I should attend but feel too anxious to go to), maybe it will help to try telling myself that I'm actually excited, rather than anxious. (Because, to be honest, something I think I am actually excited and I'm so used to being anxious that I confuse the two!)

Here's an interesting article, "How 'Anxious Reappraisal' Can Turn Anxiety Into Productivity" on this subject, if you want to learn more about this idea of choosing excitement over anxiousness. It claims that reframing anxiety as excitement can lead to improved performance and productivity. While I can't vouch for that yet, it does make sense. And I like the idea that, in reframing the anxiety, you're not attempting to get rid of it but rather to use it to your advantage. 

 

LEAN INTO IT

The article mentioned above also discusses what is going to be my second anxiety-acceptance tactic: leaning into it. Trying to get myself to calm down or chill out clearly hasn't worked for me. (Or, rather, it doesn't work in the long-term, as there are definitely some things that can calm me for a bit, but they never last.) According to the article (and some other sources I've explored), it's easier for the brain to go from one amped up emotion to the other (going from anxious to excited is easier than going from anxious to calm, apparently) so, rather than trying to chill out, I'm going to try amping it up (in a more positive way though).

I could see how, depending on the situation, the person, and the level of anxiety, this might not be a good idea, but for me personally I can see it potentially working. I have a lot of energy and thoughts and ideas (sometimes it feels like my mind is just one giant exclamation point!), and trying to work with them instead of trying to get rid of them might just work for me. I also read about this idea of inviting the symptoms, in which you're supposed to pay attention to the symptoms and take control of them by attempting to heighten them. This seems a bit of an odd trick, but the whole "using paradox" thing might be interesting to explore as another way to really lean into the anxiety. 

 

SIT WITH IT

And, finally, I'm going to try to just sit with it and let it happen. One of the most difficult aspects of feeling anxious for me is knowing that it's irrational, unhelpful, and not productive. I know it's a waste of time and stressful not only for me but for those around me, so I try to resist it. But I think, much like trying to untangle a knot by aggressively tugging at it, this just makes things worse. Whenever I feel anxious, I try to undo the feelings as quickly as possible, which, so far, hasn't really worked out for me. I'm going to try to stop fighting it and see what happens. I'm going to sit with it, even if that means literally just sitting and doing nothing, and I'm going to try not to judge it. 

I'm going to try, best as I can, to observe the anxiety and, if possible, even try to enjoy it. Weird as that sounds, so many good things (like the illustration above -- my most liked post on Instagram so far!) come from my anxiety. It's always been a part of me and, while reading First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety the other day, I pondered my answer to the question, "If I could give up my anxiety completely, would I?" There are times that I would probably say yes and, sure, maybe I would be better off without it, but I also know that it's part of me, like it or not. Maybe it won't always be, but, while it's here, I might as well try to find the good in it and make the most of it. 

 

I know these ideas won't work for everyone (and they might not even work for me!), but I figure that if something (resisting anxiety) really isn't working, it might be worth trying to do the opposite (assisting anxiety) to see what happens! If you have anxiety, what do you think of the notions of reframing it, leaning into it, and sitting with it? Do you have any other ideas for coping with anxiety without trying to run from it? I'd love to hear your thoughts or experiences in the comments section below! 

 

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Comments

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Good article! Acceptance is the foundation to living in the "now". Yes. We do have a choice. Acceptance is always the right choice. Many perceive acceptance as making do or not improving a circumstance. When in fact it brings you more into the present rather then losing yourself in your thoughts. The Brain is a powerful tool. But how we use it makes all the difference.
Thank you

Thanks for sharing your experience with anxiety. I've also struggled with anxiety...last February was a low point for me as I started having panic attacks almost every day. Even when I didn't have a panic attack, I had this constant numb and tingle in my skin from the anxiety, it was scary and frustrating. You're right that resisting the anxiety doesn't help, and the more you think about the anxiety the worse it gets. What really helped me was learning to accept it and looking at it as a "friend" than a "foe". Instead of looking at anxiety as something that was "wrong" with me I learned to view it as part of me. Acupressure also helped ease those nasty physical symptoms of anxiety too. I'm happy that I'm now in a much calmer place and it sounds like you're on the right path!

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