Learning To Simply Tolerate Your Anxiety
It can go against your instincts, but one good way to reduce the power anxiety has over you is to just become more tolerant of its physical symptoms. When you're anxious it causes all kinds of uncomfortable effects in your body, like your heart starts beating too fast, your stomach gets upset, or you feel dizzy. People who struggle with their nerves tend to hate and overreact to these sensations, which makes them even more upset and jittery ("Oh no, I feel sick. I'm starting to spiral. I can't stand this. What if I throw up and embarrass myself?!?")
When we start to feel anxious our understandable first response is to try to make it go away by using all kinds of coping techniques such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation, picturing calming scenes, or distracting ourselves. Those tools have value, but if you get better at simply tolerating your physical anxiety, and not getting as set off by it, then you won't need to use them as much. You won't have to put everything on hold for ten minutes while you use this or that relaxation skill. Your heart will start racing as you think of the party you're about to go to, and you'll tell yourself, "Yep, there's that thumping in my chest. Whatever. It just feels weird. It'll slow down before long", then go back to getting ready.
When you know you can withstand the physical symptoms of your anxiety, it has less ability to freak you out and control you. It's also just handy to be able to ride out an anxious spell in situations where it's not practical to use a more involved coping skill. No method is perfect, and this won't make every bout of nerves easy to get through, but even learning to put up with those one or two extra-distressing symptoms can make your anxiety feel less inconvenient and annoying.
A standard warning
Don't try this approach on your own if your anxiety is really severe or disabling, or it's tied into a serious trauma. You can still use it, but I'd recommend having a counselor guide you through the process. This is a self-help article, so its ideas are for if you, say, get a bit uncomfortable and insecure in group conversations. If your anxiety is totally crippling your life, that's different.
Learning to sit with your anxious sensations
The next time you're on your own, and you feel somewhat anxious, rather than trying to make the physical symptoms go away, quietly observe them for a few minutes. Try to take a detached, curious perspective on what's happening inside you, almost like you're an alien scientist that's been teleported into a human body so you can learn how it works. Attend to the feelings one at a time, and break the general feeling of "anxiety" into its component parts. If your mouth is dry, pay attention to how that feels. If your stomach's grumbling, tune into the changing sensations in your belly. If a wave of tingly heat passes through you, notice where it moves.
None of this may feel great, but try to be with the feelings and put up with them. Try to take on a mellow, going-with-the-flow attitude, as opposed to one where you're gritting your teeth and waiting for it to be over, or trying to aggressively "win" against your anxiety.
You might find that when you deliberately attend to how a symptom feels in a distant, curious way it doesn't seem as bad. It's also common to notice that anxious sensations tend to fade on their own if you leave them be, and don't add fuel to the fire. That or they come and go with a mind of their own. It's nice when a sensation feels less-intense or dissipates, but the idea isn't to make the symptoms vanish, but to tune into them. A sensation often will go away, but usually in a paradoxical sense where the only way it will disappear is if you're okay with it being present.
Start small and work your way up
You can become more tolerant of your anxiety, but you want to get the hang of the mindset gradually, without accidentally doing too much, too soon. Here are some ways you can do this:
- Start by observing your anxiety when it's mild. When you're used to that, try paying attention to it when it's at a moderate intensity. If you really want to ease into things, start by noticing how various parts of your body feel when you're not anxious at all.
- Attend to the sensations that aren't as distressing for you, then work up to the ones you have a harder time feeling (e.g., it doesn't bother you to feel hot and flushed, but you can't stand being nauseous).
- Begin by focusing on your anxiety for about five minutes, or even less, then go for longer as that becomes routine.
- Alternate between stretches of focusing on your anxiety, then being calmer. Pay attention to how your anxiety feels for a bit, then relax yourself through deep breathing, muscle relaxation, thinking of calming scenes, and so on. After several minutes of relaxation, see if you can let the nervous feelings to come back, then do another round of practice.
- At first, practice sitting with your anxiety when you're at home. Later on, try using the skills when you're out in public (e.g., while you're taking the bus to school and worrying about an upcoming assignment). Build up to tolerating your nerves in the situations that scare you.
Inducing your anxiety symptoms on purpose
You can practice tolerating your anxiety whenever it comes up naturally (which hopefully isn't too often). Another option is to purposely bring on specific anxious feelings, and then try to observe and ride them out. The formal therapy term for this is Interoceptive Exposure.
Here's how you can create various sensations (again, if you really struggle with your anxiety, do this with a counselor):
- Having a rapid heart beat - This one's easy. Do any kind of intense exercise, like running in place, push ups, or squats.
- Feeling out of breath - Again, do some intense exercise.
- Feeling you can't get a proper breath - Breathe through a straw.
- Feeling dizzy and lightheaded - Spin in place; Breathe rapidly for a minute or so; Sit with your head between your legs then stand up quickly.
- Generally feeling amped up - Drink some caffeine; listen to intense, driving music and jump around.
- Trembling - Hold your muscles in a tough, uncomfortable position until they start to shake and give out, e.g., squatting against a wall, holding yourself in a plank position
- Feeling overheated - Turn up the thermostat, put on some warm clothes, and move around; if it's hot out then just go outside for a bit.
- Your throat feeling tight - Tense your neck and throat muscles.
- Feeling a sense of things being odd and unreal - Stare at a picture for a while until it starts to feel strange.
- Nausea - This one is obviously less practical, but still technically possible to call up on command. You could watch a spinny, disorienting video that makes you feel motion sick. If car rides sometimes make you feel woozy you could get a friend or family member to drive you around.
It doesn't work for everyone, but some people can also use their imagination to bring on their usual mix of symptoms. Close your eyes and picture a scary situation in detail. For example, having to give a speech to a large, unfriendly crowd. It won't be as intense as the real thing, but you can often conjure up some anxiety to practice on this way.