I’m sure that sounds absolutely crazy; why would you want to bring anxiety closer? That is probably the last thing on your mind when you think about anxiety. You probably want to push it as far away as you can, you probably tense against it, and pray that it will pass quickly.
Is that approach working for you? Is fighting against anxiety making is smaller, less intense or less frequent? If the answer is no, read on and see if a new approach might be helpful. Our normal reaction is to become tense and to prepare for battle when we experience something uncomfortable or distressing. In my experience and the experience of many people I have worked with, this only serves to make the scary thing even scarier.
Next time you feel the wave of anxiety start to grip you, take a deep breath. Start to label all of the sensations happening in your body. Perhaps it starts with a tingling in your chest, or maybe a heavy feeling just under your collarbone. Maybe your stomach starts to feel tight, or maybe you start to feel nauseous. Do you feel lightheaded? Do you feel pain anywhere? Describe the pain – is it sharp, dull, hot, cold? How big of an area does the pain take up? Does it move or stay in one place? Keep labeling everything you notice. Try not to go any farther than labeling. Don’t add on any kind of judgments to the labeling – like “oh my gosh this is going to take over my whole body”, or “I think I am going to pass out or have a heart attack.” Just keep labeling without any story attached.
As you label the sensations, keep breathing. Every once in a while stop labeling and just focus on your breath. Feel the air coming in your nostrils and filling up your lungs. Feel the air leaving your lungs and going back out your nostrils. Do this for a count of 3 cycles. Each cycle consists of an in breath and an out breath. After 3 cycles, go back and notice what sensations are happening in your body. Bring them in close enough to really get descriptive with what they feel like. Rather than getting tense, try to imagine softening and letting those sensations in. Soften with the sensations rather than tensing against them.
If you get to a place when you feel like you just can’t take it anymore and the anxiety is going to take over, commit to just 1 more minute of this practice. Just 1 minute. You can do it. The anxiety has not killed your before, and it is not likely to in the next minute, so stick with the labeling and breathing for just 1 more minute.
The idea is that we tend to push away (or at least we think we are pushing away) that which is painful. It really isn’t going away, it just appears bigger and darker and scarier when we can’t see it clearly. When we bring it in closer and we can see it more clearly, the power of whatever is causing us pain tends to get smaller. It is important to stay focused on your experience directly in the moment, and not get caught in the story that we usually make up to go along with the pain. This is not easy. We have had years of practice in making up and following stories to go along with absolutely everything we experience in our lives, good or bad. We usually don’t have nearly as much experience in just staying in direct contact with what is going on. For example, imaging being outside when it is really cold. Do you ever just experience all of the sensations of being cold, or do you say to yourself “I hate being cold, I have got to get inside and warm up or my hands are going to fall off! I have got to move to somewhere warmer, I can’t stand being so cold all the time!” That’s the story I’m talking about.
Practice labeling what you are experiencing when you are not in the middle of an anxiety attack. Do it when it’s easy, when there is not much intensity. Practice when it’s easy, and it will be easier to practice when it’s tough.