Observing Anxiety

What exactly does it mean to observe anxiety? When I ask clients how they felt when confronted with a stressful event, they almost always tell me what they thought, not how they felt. They say things like, “I felt like he was going to yell at me.” That is a thought…not a feeling. A feeling would be, “I felt afraid,” or “I felt the sensation of fear.”

What does it mean to observe the sensation of fear? By directing your attention inward, and not toward the person who was going to yell at you, you can locate where you are feeling the sensation in your body. I almost always feel fear and anxiety at the top of my abdomen, beneath the sternum. Getting close enough to the sensation to fully experience it demystifies and normalizes it. 

We naturally try to avoid or escape situations that stimulate anxious feelings, but we also try to avoid or escape the feelings. This is a mistake because it is impossible not to feel what you feel. Your feelings are involuntary, but your thoughts are the stories you construct. When you push back against feelings, you believe your stories…the emotionally reactive thoughts. When you ride a rollercoaster, you don’t actually believe you are going to die, and the feeling subsides when you exit.

When you don’t disturb yourself about rising feelings, and instead, experience them like waves in the ocean, you will notice when the emotional waves recede. When you move up close to an uncomfortable feeling–like leaning into a cold wind–you are tolerating it. When you brace yourself against it, it bothers you. Pushing back intensifies the very feeling you are wishing not to have.

Living well with ADHD calls for living well with your emotional experiences…accepting the ups and downs of life’s rollercoaster. There is no alternative if you want to embrace life fully. Emotions are the color of life.

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