Almost everybody experiences anxiety from time to time. Accepting and reframing anxiety can do us a whole lot of good.
You might be familiar with how anxiety feels.
Maybe a big work presentation sets off a cascade of nervous feelings. Or worries about money, your relationship, and the future. Maybe you’re not even sure what sets you off.
Whatever the cause, many of us have been there. Anxiety is one of those human emotions we may all experience, at least from time to time. It’s also our body’s alarm system: a way of letting us know we’re stressed or under some kind of threat physically or emotionally.
But for some, especially people living with an anxiety disorder, this feeling may rarely subside. If you feel like your anxiety is interfering with your life, there are things that can help. One of the most important skills you can develop is learning to accept the discomfort of anxiety.
Here’s what that means.
Feeling anxiety, at least from time to time, may never go away. It’s a basic, human response mechanism.
“Anxiety stems from our fight, flight, freeze instinct getting turned on. The amygdala in the brain — the part of our brain we share with reptiles — is responsible for this,” explains Chloe Haaz Sica, a New York and New Jersey licensed psychologist. “It’s our body’s best protection from threats that exist in the world, and it’s incredibly important to keep us alive.”
In other words, anxiety is there to help us run away from or fight danger when we need it. However, in the modern world, the amygdala isn’t always able to tell the difference between many kinds of threats, including those that might not need this big of a reaction.
“The amygdala is like a smoke alarm,” says Jessica Frick, a licensed professional counselor in Pennsylvania. “It’s looking for smoke but it can’t tell whether that smoke is from fire or a burnt pizza.”
However, if we can accept that anxiety is something we may all experience, it can help us normalize it, what it feels like, and its true purpose.
“If we were to experience no anxiety at all, we’d be missing out on important cues from our minds and bodies about danger, discomfort, or uncertainty;” says Kailey Hockridge, a licensed professional clinical counselor from Los Angeles, California.
Then, once we begin normalizing it, we can begin to learn tips and tools to recognize when it’s serving us and when it’s not to better cope or reframe it.
Here are some tips you can try to accept and manage your anxiety:
Mindfulness meditation is a helpful exercise in learning how to sit with the discomfort of anxiety. You may learn through this practice that you can experience anxiety without letting it completely discourage or overwhelm you.
In other words, you may not be able to stop feeling anxious immediately, but you can learn to accept your unpleasant thoughts and then redirect your mind to something else.
When you feel anxious, acknowledge the feeling and let it move through you. You don’t have to judge it or act upon it, you can simply observe it and remind yourself that it will pass.
Journaling is another way to learn to accept anxiety. When you journal, you can gain insight into your emotions and discover whether your anxiety is serving a useful purpose.
To help better understand your anxiety, you can start by considering the following questions:
- What makes me feel anxious right now?
- What, at this moment, do I have control over?
- What type of attitude do I have toward my anxiety?
You may realize through journaling that there are certain times when something specific causes your anxiety, like having a busy work or school week, and other times when there’s no root cause of your anxiety.
In times when you realize that your anxiety isn’t serving a useful purpose, you can then accept the feeling as it is but not take it so seriously.
Make sure you are meeting your needs
Sometimes, however, there is a reason for your anxiety.
“Anxiety is your friend — it’s here to teach you something that you need and are not getting,” says Kate Schroeder, a licensed professional counselor from St. Louis, Missouri.
So, get curious and ask yourself: What is my body trying to tell me? Why am I feeling anxious right now? Maybe this feeling can tell you something about your overall well-being so that you can make a change.
For example, maybe you haven’t been sleeping or taking care of yourself while working on a big project and your body is starting to feel the effects of all that stress. Maybe it’s a sign you need to take a break.
Ask yourself what’s most important
“Doing what’s important to you is the most sure-fire way to reduce anxiety’s hold on you,” says Frick. “Think about what matters to you — being spontaneous? Caring? Independent? — [then] ask yourself how closely you’re living by those values.”
“Chances are, there’s room for improvement,” she continues, so “take things day by day, and incorporate one chosen value into your day.”
For example, if you want to be more spontaneous, accept that invitation to go out for drinks after work with your colleagues, even if the idea of socializing gives you butterflies.
Then, once you get there, see how actually doing something that aligns with your goals makes you feel. Does it make your anxiety better or worse?
Challenge unhelpful thoughts
Remember, “anxiety can be like a broken fire alarm that keeps going off when no actual threat is there,” says Sica.
So, if you’re feeling afraid or nervous, ask yourself: Is this fear realistic? What are the chances of that fear actually happening? And if it did happen, how bad would it really be?
Sometimes when we take a moment to challenge our thoughts, it can help put those fears into perspective so that they have less of a hold over us.
When you notice your thoughts racing and you feel like you can’t stop them — or you feel physically affected by your anxiety, it’s best to try to get up and do something.
“When feeling the physical sensations of anxiety, you can soothe your mind from racing thoughts or worry by taking deep breaths, doing something physical to replace the anxiety with a different sensation, or creating a more soothing atmosphere by taking a shower, lighting a candle, taking a walk, putting cold water on your face,” explains Sica.
But don’t avoid
“Anxiety gets worse if we avoid things,” explains Frick. “This tells our brains that there’s a valid reason to be anxious, even if there isn’t.”
She continues, “If there’s something you want or need to do, but struggle to do because of anxiety, do your best to continue doing the activity safely.”
Otherwise, your fears will only continue to grow, making it all the harder. So, while it’s OK to get up and move around or engage in a distracting activity to break the cycle of racing thoughts, don’t let the distractions take over so that you fall further behind.
“Distracting activities like watching TV or socializing can sometimes get our minds off of anxiety for a short time,” explains Frick. “However, doing too much distraction leads to avoidance, which can make anxiety worse.”
“Anxiety is a normal part of life and it’s important to realize that so that you aren’t holding yourself to unrealistic expectations,” says Maggie Holland, a licensed therapist from Washington State. “it’s not going to ever 100% go away, and that’s not a bad thing.”
It can tell us when we need to relax, take breaks, or make changes in our lives. But it can also take over.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
That’s why it’s important to both normalize and accept that anxiety isn’t going anywhere, then learn new tools to live with it and reframe it into something useful.
If you aren’t sure where to begin or would prefer help in developing strategies for managing your anxiety, consider working with a mental health professional for further care.