Some emotions are like quicksand — the harder we struggle against them, the deeper in we seem to get. We spend a lot of unnecessary energy struggling with “bad” emotions, and that’s energy that could otherwise be going to things that matter more to us.
Anxiety is one of those emotions we struggle with fruitlessly. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to control anxiety? It seems to feed on itself. A clear example is the case of insomnia. We lie in bed wishing we could sleep, trying to sleep, telling ourselves over and over, “I have to sleep, if I don’t sleep tonight, tomorrow will be awful.” This kind of thinking doesn’t help, but we tend to do it anyway.
We try to remove anxiety the way we would normally remove something bad from our lives, something physical. If there’s a bad spot on the banana, we cut it out and throw it away. If there’s a stain on the rug, we try to remove it and can often succeed. But do our feelings work the same way?
An alternative to struggling with anxiety — and sinking deeper and deeper into the quicksand — is to work with it mindfully. All anxiety consists of is 1. sensations, 2. thoughts. We can become more aware of these sensations and thoughts in the moment, and when we do, they have less power to boss us around. For some mysterious reason, when we’re in full contact with anxiety and willing to have it, it has less influence on our behavior.
Here’s how to do it: Find a time when you will not be disturbed and a place that is comfortable and relatively quiet, if possible. Sit quietly and as still as possible. Breathe and observe your breath for several cycles of inhalation and exhalation. Then begin to scan your body from head to toes, slowly, using your mind’s eye. Feel every sensation you encounter, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant. Stay with the difficult sensations for awhile, don’t move away from them too quickly. Breathe deeply into them, as if to give them some air, not to make them disappear. Every so often, notice your thoughts in the moment. Make a mental note, non-judgmentally, of what the thought was, such as, “thinking this anxiety is awful,” or, “thinking about what’s going to happen tomorrow.” Try to stick with the exercise for at least 10 minutes. Use a timer so you don’t have to watch the clock!
Working mindfully with anxiety and accepting it will NOT necessarily make it go away. The goal of “making it go away” would just be more of the same mistake of struggling in quicksand, trying to get rid of “bad” feelings! Rather, spending mindful time feeling our feelings and observing our thoughts, accepting the discomfort that is present, allows us to move on and do something more important with our energy, something we care about. It takes practice, but with mindfulness techniques, you CAN reduce the energy you waste struggling with anxiety, and invest it somewhere more important.
After all, what would you rather spend your energy on: struggling with bad feelings, or working on your personal goals and relationships?