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Get Better at Being Anxious?

Ever heard "get comfortable being uncomfortable" and wondered how? Here's how.

Key points

  • Sitting with anxiety really means acting or living with anxiety.
  • Acting while anxious means living your life without trying to make the feeling go away.
  • Much of anxiety treatment is paradoxical: What seems intuitive actually makes anxiety stronger.
Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock

The best therapist I ever worked with was also the one with whom I spoke the least. And for as few words as I said, he said even fewer, aptly pointing out that I spent far too much time in my head and too little time experiencing how feelings felt in my body. As a result, my sessions involved literally sitting with sensations and learning how to observe and describe how they felt: a heaviness in my chest, swirling in my gut, buzzing in my head, waves of heat coursing through my body. This was what it meant to “sit with my feelings” and I didn’t love it. But once I got past how awkward and unfamiliar it felt (no small feat), I was amazed at how quickly I became calm and present.

It got me thinking about a concept many of my clients, as well as social media posts, speak to: “sitting with your anxiety.” While the phrase is spot-on correct in spirit, it can be confusing to understand what it means. Are we supposed to stop what we’re doing and drop into the lotus position to marinate in anxiety and panic? Thankfully, no. Not only is that unrealistic and impractical, but focusing on how you’re feeling only strengthens the already uncomfortable feelings.

When we suggest “sitting with a feeling,” what we mean is: allowing the feeling to be there instead of trying to make it go away. This is the paradoxical nature of anxiety treatment. It’s intuitive to try to do something to make an undesired feeling stop. When we’re nervous about something, we worry. Or overthink. Or seek reassurance. Or ask Google. But does all that worrying, overthinking, reassurance seeking, or Googling make our anxiety better? Probably not. Does it help resolve the situation in any measurable way? Again, probably not.

To change your relationship with anxiety, you need to get better at “being anxious.” Someone who’s practiced at being anxious accepts that feeling and, therefore, doesn’t engage in behaviors that make the problem worse. To sit with your anxiety simply means to accept it. Since you’re not literally sitting all day, think of it as “living or acting with anxiety.” Instead of making anxiety the focus of your attention, allow it to be there while you grocery shop, send an email, go to work, pick up the kids, or make dinner. The less attention the feeling gets, the faster it will pass. There’s no need to check to see if the feeling is still there; doing so will only re-trigger it and keep the cycle going. Try the following steps instead.

5 Steps to Help You Get Better at Being Anxious

  1. Notice if you’re focusing on the feeling (if you’re “in your head” or doing a behavior repetitively, the answer is yes!)
  2. Identify how you’re feeling with the following phrase: “I’m noticing I’m feeling _________” (Insert feeling).
  3. Remind yourself that feelings are not dangerous. They are temporary experiences that will pass all on their own. You don’t need to do anything with them.
  4. Redirect your attention to something you’re doing in the here and now.
  5. When your brain tries to suck you back into your worry, go back to step 1 or 2.

As is the case with any new skill, learning to sit with anxiety requires practice, repetition, patience, and self-compassion. And having a sense of humor about it doesn’t hurt! Don’t be afraid to say to yourself (or out loud) “I am grabbing the broccoli even though I feel anxious.” Maybe the person next to you will benefit as well!

When I practice this with clients in session, we don’t sit in near silence for forty minutes like I had to back in the day, but still, it’s uncomfortable. It’s also effective. Much like anxiety treatment.

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