Staying in the Present Moment and Accepting What Is
If you have a history of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem or shame, you also probably have a history of struggle and trying to cope. You’ve probably identified some good coping skills and you’ve also probably acquired a few not so helpful coping skills. You may have worked to rid yourself of the feeling, avoid situations that trigger the feeling, or tried to numb the feeling. These strategies may help sometime, but life keeps bringing up situations where you feel bad again.
I think a helpful strategy is to change how you relate to painful feelings. If you start with the fact that life will continue to throw painful stuff your way, how can you experience it so that there is less struggle? Can you relate to pain so that it isn’t as overwhelming, that you don’t suffer as much or as deeply?
How we relate to painful feelings
Your experience of a painful feeling like anxiety may follow a familiar pattern:
- you may or may not notice something that causes the anxiety. Perhaps someone says or does something, or you have a distressing thought about some past event or some future possibility, which leads to:
- a feeling of anxiety which could range from mild dread to full blown panic, which leads to
- you noticing the feeling and being upset by it. It could include thoughts like “here we go again” or “this is ruining my day” or “when will this ever end” and may lead to
- you trying to do something to deal with the anxiety. You try to cope with it, perhaps using helpful coping mechanisms or coping mechanisms that are more problematic or feel harmful. While these may be helpful sometimes, sometimes the painful feeling gets worse, the suffering gets magnified.
If you have a history of anxiety or other difficult feelings, this process has been going on for years. Sometimes it is very clear why you’re anxious and other times it is free-floating - you have no idea why you’re anxious! Whether or not you know why, you do know that you’ve struggled for a long time.
Is there another way to experience pain?
Yes, there is.
It can be helpful to think about the above chain of events and consider what you can and cannot control. You can make efforts to change things in your life, your work, the people you hang out with and lots of other stuff that may trigger anxiety for you. This might reduce anxiety and is certainly worth the effort. However, you can’t control everything in the world around you, even though you may try. Life will continue to surprise you with things that will trigger anxiety.
You can’t control when and how anxiety shows up. Often I work with people who want to make their anxiety just go away. They are willing to do a lot to make it stop. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s possible. Life will continue to deliver painful stuff that brings up anxiety.
You can control what you do when anxiety shows up. This is where creating some acceptance around the feeling can make a big difference. So perhaps something happens that triggers anxiety, or you just notice yourself feeling anxious. Now what?
Stay present, create some space, and lean in
One strategy that can make a difference is to cultivate a practice of staying in the present moment, creating some space and leaning in to the feeling. How do you do this?
- Take a deep breath and, if it feels comfortable, slow down your exhalation to encourage your nervous system to relax.
- Try a few more deep breaths if they feel helpful.
- Bring your attention to the feeling. See if you can have some curiosity around it. What exactly does this anxiety feel like? What do you notice and how would you describe it? Do you notice it somewhere in your body? What’s that like? How are you experiencing this?
- Take some more deep breaths if that feels comfortable.
- Bring your attention back to the feeling. Do you notice any changes? Is it getting more intense or less intense? Is the experience of the feeling changing?
- Go back to your breathing. Take more deep breaths and this time, see if you can breathe into the feeling. If you notice the anxiety in your stomach, see if you can bring some spaciousness and openness to your stomach by imagining breathing into it. You can try breathing into other parts of your body where you might be feeling this anxiety.
- Continue to sit with the feeling and notice what is happening to it for as long as you can without struggling.
Trying this exercise can help shift how you relate to feelings. You may notice that when you stay present and build some acceptance around the feeling you struggle a little less with it. It may become less painful or you may notice that it has a natural life span and start to realize that even painful feelings will end. Feelings tend to happen in waves - a feeling wells up and it subsides. Knowing this can help you be willing to have the feeling because you know it will eventually subside.
Whether you are anxious, depressed, or just feel bad about yourself, learning how to relate differently to what comes up for you can be very helpful. You may notice less need to struggle and less suffering as a result. Ultimately, this allows you to focus back on the important and meaningful things in your life, rather than on the painful experience.