Sometimes, we know what's making us anxious and can negotiate calm. Other times, our anxiety is caused by hormones or too much caffeine or something more out of our control, and we just have to ride it out.
Other times, still, we feel anxiety but doing what it tells us to do is unserving, so we want to try to weather the anxiety storm. For example, anxiety is telling you to go home from work even though you have to get a project done; or it's telling you to leave the theater even though you really want to see your son's dance performance; or it's telling you to pull your head out of the water even though you really want to learn how to scuba-dive (been there).
So, whether you're riding it out (or, as Pema Chodron says, "staying" with it) to perform or to survive, here are seven tips for making sitting with anxiety less torturous:
1. Cool down.
You know how we tend to "go outside for air" or splash cold water on our faces when we're feeling on the verge of a panic attack? Well, we're onto something. Anxiety causes vasoconstriction (the "fight or flight" response), and we tend to experience changes in temperature as a result.
If you're feeling anxious, check into your body and notice if you feel overly warm or cold. Turn on the AC, take off your sweater, or move near a fan or window. Just be mindful, though, that you might find yourself feeling cold shortly thereafter, so have layers handy!
2. Imagine living alongside the fires, rather than putting them out.
I once had a client who referred to his problems as "fires." He believed he had to extinguish the fires in order to be happy. We soon realized, though, that there will always be fires, so while it made sense to spend some energy working to put them out, it also made sense to learn to accept and expect a few fires to be burning here and there.
Sometimes with anxiety, we become so focused on stopping it or fixing it, we don't get anything else done or get to enjoy life at all. Getting by when anxiety's high can be very challenging, but try to make some space for that anxiety so you can still find some moments of joy in your day. The fire's there, and smoke may be blowing in your face much of the time, but there might be other times when the wind changes and it's not so bad.
3. Breathe, move, and be in nature.
Get into your body using your breath or movement. (Or both!) Some days at work, anxiety tells me I'll feel better if I eat my lunch at 9am or go on social media for an hour. Those days, if I can catch anxiety's false promises before I distract myself with food or Instagram, I pull out my yoga mat and take Child's Pose or do some Sun Salutations.
That's not always realistic if you work in a cramped or public setting, so instead bring your attention to your breath for a few moments. Put one hand on your belly and one on your chest, and try to make the belly hand move more, or do a couple stretches if you have the space. Another option is going for a walk, as more and more research is proving the benefits of getting out in nature. Make sure you have proper outerwear for a cold or rainy winter!
4. Soothe yourself.
You know how when you're sick, you make yourself soup or have a bath or watch reruns of Friends? Same goes for days when you're feeling super anxious — although what soothes you when you're anxious might be different from what soothes you when you have the flu.
When I'm feeling super anxious and know it's not going anywhere, I make sure I have some Lana Del Ray queued up and rub on some essential oils. If you have access to a (nice) pet, spending time with one can be very soothing as well; however, ask yourself what you need in that moment. It's OK not to know, too.
5. Remember impermanence.
If you take nothing else away from this article, remember this: Anxiety will come and go. And then it will come and go again. And again, and again. Everything is constantly in flux, transient, changing — your thoughts, your feelings, your existence. So, when it all feels like too much, remind yourself it will pass, and try to breathe through another moment.
6. Be kind to yourself.
Sitting with anxiety is far more difficult when we're beating up on ourselves. While reminding yourself of anxiety's impermanent nature, and soothing or distracting yourself with healthy coping strategies, practice self-compassion.
Say to yourself what you would to a friend. Remind yourself that anxiety does not equate to weakness, brokenness, or not trying hard enough. Empathize with what you are going through, acknowledge we're all in this together, and try to soften the language you use with yourself to derail some of that shame-causing self-judgment.
7. Remember, you're not actually that important.
Yes, that's what I meant to say. Often, our anxiety is made worse by a belief that we must "get it under control" or be "on" for others. While it's true that some ways of reacting to anxiety can affect relationships, I guarantee nobody is more afflicted by it than you. And most people are too focused on their own insecurities, struggles, and anxieties to spend much time worrying about how yours make them feel. So, try to permit yourself to be anxious for the time being until it passes, knowing that the world will continue to turn, regardless or whether or not you're feeling anxious.
Megan Bruneau, M.A., is a therapist, executive coach, and wellness writer based in New York City. She received her bachelor of arts in psychology and family studies from the University of British Columbia and a masters of arts in counselling psychology from Simon Fraser University. She is a registered clinical counselor (RCC) in British Columbia, but now works with clients in New York and globally via remote work. Drawing inspiration from her own experiences, Bruneau has contributed to The Huffington Post, Forbes, and Thrillist and has appears on Good Morning America and New York 1 Morning News. She is also the host of the podcast Better Because of It.