Jason R. Waller
A Better Way to Deal with Anxiety
Counterintuitively, it’s not “dealing with it” at all.
Here you are, answering the “knock, knock, knock” of an article title promising some helpful advice. You’ve just tapped open the door of your phone or computer and here I am, like a missionary on your virtual porch, asking you: “have you heard about the saving power of acceptance?”
Acceptance is our superpower for dealing with uncomfortable emotions. Or, more accurately, not dealing with them. After all, we’ve been exhausting ourselves trying to “deal with them” for most of our adult lives. Worry, rumination, problem solving, avoidance, distractions — all ways that we’ve been desperately trying to “deal with” our emotions so we don’t have to accept them. And you know why? Because we’re terrified of them.
But there is a different way. A radically simple and radically different way.
Start by slowing down
We would rather be ruined than changed We would rather die in our dread Than climb the cross of the moment And let our illusions die. – W.H. Auden, “The Age of Anxiety”
I’m writing this as an approach to anxiety, but truth be told: replace “anxiety” with any other uncomfortable feeling and the message is the same. And although there are several sections in this article, they all point toward this core idea of acceptance. By “acceptance,” I don’t mean giving up or letting go — I mean living with what is, in the here and now, not with what we think could be or should be.
The very first step of acceptance, though, starts with being aware of what’s happening. You can’t make new choices if you’re not aware of the choices you’re already making on autopilot. To ramp up awareness, try slowing down. When you catch yourself feeling an uncomfortable emotion, pause and get curious about it.
A great way to slow down is by just breathing. Focus on your breath, which engages your parasympathetic nervous system and in turn helps slow down your stress response. You can do some deliberate breathing patterns or just breathe like you’ve done every day of your life.
From this slower place, take stock of what’s happening. What sensations do you have in your body? How would you describe them? What is your posture or activity? What urges do you feel? What emotions are you experiencing? What thoughts do you notice yourself having? You can even write all these observations down as clues to help you quickly notice when you’re slipping into a familiar emotion or pattern. Note that a lot of the awareness here comes from checking in with your body. Your body offers a deep well of consciousness to tap into.
A final way to slow down is by writing it all out. The oldest trick in the book is in fact the book itself — journaling or keeping a place for reflection can be hugely helpful. We can’t write nearly as fast as we can think, so we’re forced to be slow and thoughtful. We also give ourselves space to process our emotions and look objectively at what we’re afraid of. By writing down our fears and our anxieties, we give them a place to live outside of our restless mind.
Lean into the feeling, not away
This is the core of acceptance — leaning in. Once we slow down and notice what’s happening to us, what we’re feeling, we have a deliberate choice. You see, we can’t control what emotions we feel in the moment, but we can control how we act in response. And what do we usually do? Run away.
This makes total sense. Anxiety is uncomfortable. Fear, sadness, guilt, loneliness, etc. are all painful feelings and emotions. But, as Nick Wignall would say, when you treat painful feelings as dangerous, your brain starts treating them like threats. The more we avoid anxiety or other unpleasant feelings, the more we condition ourselves to be afraid of the feeling and validate how dangerous it is.
The solution, then, falls into that dreaded category of “really simple but really difficult.” Lean into your uncomfortable feelings. There are no “bad” feelings and feelings by themselves can’t hurt you. What you choose to do when you experience these emotions defines your relationship with them. Most of us choose to avoid them. And most of us avoid them in two ways: attacking or distracting.
“Attacking” is just shorthand for trying to problem-solve a way out. It’s worrying and ruminating and reading that ninth website for more information on why your boss might hate you. It’s saying “I refuse to feel this uncomfortable feeling — I will fix it!” Another way we attack is by judging ourselves, telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel this way. It feels productive, but it’s a false sense of control, and just one way we avoid feeling our feelings.
“Distracting” is a bit easier to spot. We may distract ourselves quite literally by procrastinating, or do it more subtly. Having a drink to “unwind” or watching a show to “chill out” are two patterns I’m personally familiar with. Even otherwise healthy activities like hitting the gym, going for a run, or (gasp) meditating can be ways we avoid feeling our feelings. The real issue isn’t what you’re doing, but why.
Find the wisdom
First, we slow down enough to be aware of our emotions. Then, we lean in and practice accepting how we feel, not running away. In that place of acceptance is a gift — a peace with what is. But there’s also wisdom. Now, let me clarify: our emotions are not “truth” in the sense that we should always trust and follow them. Right now, I have an anxious feeling about publishing this article. If you’re reading this, I chose not to listen to it. But what I will get curious about is what it can teach me.
Sometimes, this is external — a situation I need to change or an action I need to take. Sometimes, this is internal — learning more about who I am and how I am. In the case of this anxious feeling about sharing this article, the wisdom is that this is important to me. And I have a chance to face my fears by sharing something important to me with others.
You don’t get to choose the feelings you’ll have today. But I hope you choose to practice acceptance, toward yourself and those feelings.
Good luck on your journey.
Originally published in Mind Cafe