Sitting on the edge of a cliff

Getting through anxiety can feel like sitting on the edge of a cliff

I’m fearless when it comes to talking to new people. I can approach pretty much anyone and strike up a conversation. It’s not always easy, and I don’t always feel totally comfortable, but I CAN do it.

It took me awhile to get to this place where I can feel discomfort, and move toward and not away from it.

Mindfulness, the ability to pause, keep judgments at bay, and stay present has been an invaluable practice in helping me to move through discomfort.

With mindfulness I can notice the impulse to react in a negative way before it takes over.

Choosing to be mindful enhances our stress tolerance. Instead of reacting to stress by running, fighting or numbing ourselves, mindfulness helps us to ride the wave.

The advantage of allowing the wave to move through us is that we learn something really important which is,  “Yes, I can handle this” and, “This too shall pass”.

When we rally all our resources, and face our emotions in a mindful way, we get stronger, and the turmoil caused by those emotions lessens.

Resistance, the act of fending off something – applies to positive and negative emotions alike.

When our nervous system is set to avoid, such as in avoiding an uncomfortable emotion, like sadness or vulnerability, it is also difficult to really savor the good stuff in our lives. This is because when we are avoiding something, we put up a wall to protect ourselves.  That same wall erected to protect us from the bad things, gets in the way of our ability to be present for the good things.

Avoidance only exacerbates anxiety because when you’re avoiding something it’s actually on your mind a lot. That thing that you are avoiding takes up a lot of energy.

Not only is anxiety on your mind, it’s also in your body.

When you feel anxious, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered – heart beats faster, breath becomes more shallow, more attention gets funnelled into staying safe, which generally means staying away from that thing/person/activity that makes you feel anxious.

One way to address anxiety is to practice the relaxation response. The idea is to rewire more adaptive responses, such as relaxation so the nervous system as a whole is less vulnerable to anxiety. Another advantage is that the ability to relax can then be used as a resource to gently work on increasing one’s tolerance of distress.

Here’s a strategy to encourage a relaxation response:

Practice deep belly breathing. You can do this anywhere but it’s very effective if you can lie down on your back in a comfortable position. Place one hand on your belly, and another hand on your heart. Feel the rise and fall of your belly. Feel the weight of your body against the surface that supports you. Turn off the phone, and unplug from all distractions, and do this for ten minutes (you can time it).

Cultivating a more mindful relationship with discomfort helps us to move through the challenges we face with courage and grace. It’s not easy to change old patterns that hold us back but when we do, we also become more open and can take advantage of opportunities for personal growth and connection.

For more information about dealing with anxiety, see:

The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free From Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Georg H. Eifert and John P. Forsyth