Accepting the Discomfort of Anxiety


When you are in a heightened state of anxiety, if someone was to ask you to ‘sit with the discomfort’ you would probably think that it was far too challenging. However, by doing so would mean you are a taking a huge step forward in changing your behaviour and overcoming your anxiety.

But what does ‘sit with the discomfort actually mean?’ In simple terms, it is allowing yourself to be comfortable with the discomfort. To sit through the difficult feelings without running away from them – (avoiding them)

People who experience anxiety often use distractions to try and mask difficult emotions. This can range from comfort eating after a row with a partner or friend, drinking alcohol, to throwing ourselves into work. All of these are avoidance tactics. The key word here is ‘avoidance’ because when we constantly use distractions, we side step having to actually engage with any difficult feelings. The problem with this of course, is that the feelings don’t just go away. Which means we have to keep on ‘managing’ them in the same, unhelpful way.

The physical symptoms

The physical symptoms of anxiety can be very unpleasant – racing heart and palpitations, unsettled tummy, feeling hot or tingling, shaky legs, mind racing and not thinking clearly.  Human beings have anxiety to warn us of danger, creating fear. If we are faced with a wild animal or a speeding car then fear is a reasonable reaction because we are actually in danger.

But if you think about the last time you felt anxious – were you actually in danger? What would have happened if, instead of distracting yourself and avoiding the feelings, you simply acknowledged them, faced them, and sat with them. Would anything dangerous actually happen? Or would they eventually pass?

Noticing how we feel and accepting it, irrespective of whether it’s a positive or negative experience, is a mindfulness practice. There is a brain activity associated mindfulness which actually helps to make sense of it because there is an increased activation in a region of our brain located behind the frontal lobe. This area is involved in the planning and suppressing of impulsive reactions, which in turn enables us to make more rational/effective decisions in challenging situations.

Sitting with uncomfortable feelings, rather than reacting immediately or distracting yourself, means that you can start to relate to those feelings differently. By allowing yourself to experience them also allows you to actually see that you are not in danger and the feelings of anxiety won’t hurt you and ultimately, they will pass.

A common problem with people who experience anxiety are the ‘demands’ they hold, even though this is usually subconscious. For example, we tell ourselves we ‘should’ be happy all the time and we ‘must’ never feel uncomfortable. Just forget the ‘shoulds and musts’! ‘Demanding’ something doesn’t guarantee it will or won’t happen – demands just keep the negative emotion of anxiety going.

Learning to ‘accept’ negative emotions

It is ok to feel anxious or unhappy sometimes.  Try to get into the habit of observing your emotions without judgement. Perhaps you are anxious because you are worried that you may have upset a friend or partner. Acknowledge your emotions – be honest about how you really feel and why. We tend to talk ourselves out of difficult emotions but it is important to get into the habit of ‘acceptance’ instead. Letting yourself feel those negative emotions without excuses or judgements. Accepting our negative emotions, doesn’t mean we have to like them, it’s about learning to know when can of course tolerate them. Will they last forever if we just sit with them for a while? Of course not. Will they cause us any harm if we let them play out without distraction? No, because feelings don’t hurt us.

Sitting with our emotions can be challenging at first. But it’s a skill that you can learn with practice and it can be much less tiring than constantly trying to practice avoidance.

If you would like some professional help to learn how to sit with the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety. Contact us at CBT and Counselling today

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