Home Leisure & Lifestyle ‘Leaning into Anxiety’ Can Help in Treating It

‘Leaning into Anxiety’ Can Help in Treating It

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Ever feel like you’re drowning in worries, crawling out of your skin, or feeling a sense of impending doom? Chances are, you’re probably experiencing anxiety.

Anxiety is uncomfortable. As humans, we don’t like to feel nervous or scared, and we are often motivated to do anything we can to not feel this way. Anxiety is normal, in that everyone experiences waves of this emotion at times. For some, anxiety sticks around a lot longer. One reason anxiety may persist is due to how we respond to our thoughts and emotions. 

Avoidance maintains anxiety

Contrary to what we may believe, trying to distract ourselves, utilise escape behaviours or push away anxious feelings can actually increase anxiety’s intensity. This is because each time we try to push away anxiety, we are reinforcing the belief that we cannot tolerate this emotion. By trying hard not to think about or feel something, we are actually drawing more attention to that very sensation. Many people utilise avoidance strategies in order to decrease pain or discomfort. However, avoidance maintains anxiety by sending a message to the brain that something is dangerous and we can only cope by avoiding that feeling.

Leaning into anxiety

So, my suggestion is to try a different strategy of leaning into anxiety. Leaning in is a form of acceptance. To accept does not mean we like or agree with something. Rather, we are allowing and acknowledging reality as it is. When we lean into how we are already feeling, we are tuning into our bodies and encouraging ourselves to increase our awareness. In this way, we are being mindful observers, taking in our experience non-judgmentally, in that very moment.

Our emotions come and go in waves – just as happiness is often fleeting; anxiety won’t last forever either. Chances are, you are feeling anxious for a reason: something big is coming up or perhaps there is uncertainty in your life. The anxiety you are feeling is communicating important information to your brain, and instead of trying to hide from this, what would happen if you leaned into the feeling? Anxiety is more likely to actually dissipate because you now allow space for it and can process what you feel. Then, you can make an intentional decision about how to proceed – which behaviours will bring you closer to your goals, and are most in line with your values, even in the face of discomfort?

Distraction and avoidance aren’t helpful

Distraction and avoidance are usually appealing because these strategies temporarily quiet the discomfort. However, the anxiety is still there, growing louder and louder as we try to suppress it. Know that although anxiety is uncomfortable, it is not dangerous. Acceptance can be painful, however, it is like ripping off a plaster. Try this approach in baby steps and see what it feels like.

Try exposure

Another helpful strategy for anxiety is exposure. Rather than avoiding the people, places or things that elicit anxiety, instead, what would it be like to approach these very things? What if we could expose ourselves to the anxious emotions themselves? Initially, anxiety would likely increase- however, over time our brains would learn that certain situations may not be as scary as we predicted or that we could actually tolerate the anxious feelings better than we predicted.

Final thoughts

Once you acknowledge the anxiety, you can utilise additional coping strategies: 

  • Self-soothing. Stimulating the five senses of touch, hearing, vision, taste and smell
  • Self-care. This can include anything from gratitude journaling to alone time with a warm shower, lighting a candle, colouring or working out
  • Mindfulness. Breathing exercises, meditation, yoga or grounding exercises 

So the next time you’re feeling anxious and you notice an urge to distract or avoid, try instead leaning in. Over time, your body and mind will thank you.

Danielle Moskow, MA is a PhD student in clinical psychology at Boston University and a clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital. Danielle specialises in the treatment of anxiety, OCD and trauma.

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