We live in a time when uncertainty is high. Our entire country feels on edge, politically, economically, and emotionally. At times it feels as if something is going to blow up at any moment. It is no wonder that anxiety disorders are increasingly prevalent, and that many of us struggle to keep our fears at bay. But the more we try to control our anxiety, to tamp down our fear, the more it catches us off guard. There are times we awaken at 3 am with a feeling of dread in our stomach, or times when our thoughts begin to race and our heart begins to pound, and we’re stopped dead in our tracks by anxiety.
The idea that we can master our feelings, that we can flush them out with reason or ignoring, is helpful only to a point. Eventually, anxiety will catch up with us. Because it is unavoidable, it is fruitless and often counterproductive to try to eliminate it. Anxiety becomes maladaptive when the danger it is responding to is not real, or is less dangerous than we believe it to be. Anxiety becomes a disorder when it interferes with our ability to function in life.
Anxiety increases when we start labeling our experiences as negative. When we are able to experience our heart pounding, our thoughts racing, and our palms sweating and let go of the need to label these things as “bad,” or to make them stop, we are actually able to tolerate our feelings more effectively. Of course, this ability to walk towards our fear, to embrace our experience no matter what it is, takes time and practice. But we can begin by questioning our belief that any feeling is inherently bad, and open ourselves to the idea that whatever it is we experience may just be ok.
Learning to tolerate anxiety is a practice that takes time. You can begin by simply labeling it when it arises. “I notice my heart started racing when I thought about an upcoming work deadline.” Over time, you can even start to make friends with it—give it a name, or a little greeting. Treat yourself and your emotions with gentleness. This isn’t easy, particularly if our pattern has been self-recrimination. But it is possible to gradually shift our patterns through awareness and kindness to ourselves.