by Patricia Thornton, PhD
anxiety won't kill you

Whether my patients have OCD, social anxiety, a phobia, panic, or are just generally anxious about life, they come into treatment wanting to be free of the uncomfortable feelings associated with anxiety. To rid themselves of their anxiety they have tried meditation, relaxation, yoga, different psychotherapies and medication, but overall they don’t feel a whole lot better. They ask me, “Why am I so anxious?” and “How do I get rid of this anxiety?” And I respond: “You need to allow yourself to be anxious and you don’t need to know why you are anxious.” I know it sounds counterintuitive. But when you actually move toward your anxiety and just allow yourself to experience it, without trying to flee the situation or reason your way out of it, those yucky anxiety feelings and bodily sensations tend to dissipate. Anxiety never stays at one level. It oscillates up and down, often influenced by what you’re thinking about. If you accept that you’re anxious, you are no longer fighting it. When you fight the feeling, you are saying to yourself, “This is awful! I can’t cope!”, “Something bad is going to happen”. And then what happens? You get more anxious. You may attempt to manage anxiety by avoiding situations that you believe could cause you to be anxious. Or you may attempt to manage anxious thoughts by ruminating or doing things to make sure you are safe. These strategies only work in the short term, if at all. Your anxiety comes roaring back, often worse than before. If you can stay in the anxiety causing situation or stay with the disturbing thoughts long enough and say to yourself: “It’s OK that I’m anxious,” the anxiety is likely to dissipate on it’s own. You don’t need to do anything about the anxiety! And if you can take it a step further and challenge yourself to want to feel more anxious, then you are taking bold steps to conquer your anxiety. I know that asking to feel more anxious is hard to do in practice because every part of you is saying you need to get rid of the anxiety. We are wired to respond to danger by gearing up our sympathetic nervous system so that we can get out of harm’s way. Sure, if there is a rhino charging at you, your brain tells your body that there is imminent danger and your anxiety will help move you away from the rhino’s path. Unfortunately, our brain creates noise (false thoughts) that we misinterpret as dangerous and then our fight/flight system gears up, even though there is no actual danger. When you can embrace anxiety and stay with situations and thoughts that make you anxious, you are retraining your brain to be less reactive to those false thoughts. This is not the easiest thing to do, but if you haven’t tried accepting your anxiety and actually asking yourself to be more anxious, try it. You are likely to discover that moving toward your anxiety, instead of away from it, will ultimately leave you feeling less anxious.

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About the Author:

patricia_thornton_picture_1.pngPatricia Thornton, PhD specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders and OCD. She practices in New York City.

my anxiety started a month ago and i feel like my life is ruined. i'm trying to the ''It's ok to be anxious'' thing and it has been helping me a lot. thank you very much

Written like someone who has no clue. I have been thinking about plenty of other things, am currently working, and yet I've been having panic attacks all day long because of an OCD-trigger from LAST NIGHT. To say anxiety is no big deal, just accept it, is completely ignoring that this has made it nearly impossible to get any work done today because I already feel so stressed I might pass out from too many heart palpitations. Saying it dissipates...... I mean, really? Because this has been only getting worse, without thinking about it, over the course of almost 24 hours now.

I’m a 35 year old male and it’s ruining my life and I can’t seem to find the right help. Suffering for over 8 years and not getting any easier.

I’ve had anxiety my whole life. I didn’t really realize this till about a few years ago when it became crippling. Looking back into my life I remember (about age 8) I used to get myself so worked up over nothing and feel so dizzy or is wake up shaking for hours from nightmares. Later in my teens it led me to believe life wasn’t real and after four years of that I finally had to say “Pushing away from my worry is doing nothing” and as harsh as it sounds “I either have to accept and get through this or kill myself” and I sure wasn’t doing the second option. Since then I have less panic attacks but when it happens it always feels like I’m dying even though I told myself the last time for next time not to worry because I made it through. Anyways its a vicious cycle and it can only be broken by the above - accepting and taking hold of that feeling and owning it instead of the other way around.

I've been hoping to find answers regarding palpitations. I have suffered from anxiety off and on since I was in my early 20's. I am now 45 and am going through a really bad stretch. I feel like if I could just get the palpitations under control it would help tremendously. I have days, and sometimes multiple days of constant palpitations- easily in the 100's. I've recently cut out alcohol and coffee but have not gotten the results I desperately hoped for. I've also seen a cardiologist and my heart is supposedly in good shape. (And as I'm in the middle of writing this wife is yelling at the kids because they aren't listening, and it totally sets me off) I'm pretty sure this is a major contributor. But I was just hoping to talk to someone regarding palpitations.