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How to Sit with Anxiety Like Its Family

When you learn how to have a new relationship with anxious feelings by developing the ability to "sit with" and tolerate them, anxiety is no longer frightening.

Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC


Yes, you read the title right. Sit with anxiety. The very thought can make anyone anxious. I mean, who in their right mind would want to sit with anxiety??? If you have been following my blog, you know my word for 2021 was SIT, and if you are joining in, welcome! The theme for April 2021 was "sitting with family." If I have completely confused you, let me explain!

Are you familiar with the expression "welcome to the family!" when you experienced something similar to others? On a happy note, maybe it's graduating from the same university, such as, "Welcome to The Auburn Family!" Or perhaps you're a part of a family you didn't choose, but now you're in based on your experience. I think those who have suffered or are suffering from anxiety as part of that kind of family. And maybe you don't suffer from anxiety, but a loved one or a friend does, and that makes you part of the anxiety family as well! Now I've covered everyone, right!? To clarify, I know we all experience anxiety to some degree, but I am talking about the type of anxiety that stops you in your tracks; excessive worry, uncontrollable thoughts, panic attacks, phobias, etc.

So how can we sit with anxiety like it is family? Ahh, family, some days you love them, and some days they drive you crazy. Anxiety is a lot like that. It can be maddening for sure, but what's to love about anxiety, you ask? Anxiety can make us stronger and more resilient. And I believe that no matter how we feel about family, it's important to take time and sit with family because they are a part of your life, and the same goes for anxiety. Anxiety will not go away if you try to ignore it, but it often gets worse.

I discovered the app Unwinding Anxiety which focuses on sitting with anxiety instead of controlling, fixing, or running from it. Dr. Jud Brewer created the app based on his research and work surrounding how our brains form negative behavior patterns, bad habits, and addictions and the specific techniques needed to make lasting change. Unwinding anxiety uses mindfulness techniques to help you identify what triggers anxiety, recognize anxiety habits, disrupt the cycle of worry and panic, and learn specific anti-anxiety tools.

For me, the program's foundation of a simple gears analogy has been incredibly effective in confronting my anxiety, especially excessive worry and ruminating thoughts. The following is a brief description I hope can be helpful to you as well. First, think of a car with three gears and reverse, and to drive the car smoothly and move forward, you must start in first gear and shift in order.

First Gear: First gear is about becoming aware of an anxiety habit loop

(trigger, behavior, and reward). For example, you have a thought (trigger), and it grows into multiple worries that you are unable to control (behavior), so you distract yourself with mindless scrolling on your phone (reward). Nothing needs to be done in first gear to change the behavior. Simply recognizing the anxiety habit loop is enough to move you forward.

Second Gear: The purpose of the second gear is to become curious about the reward we are getting from the anxiety habit loop. From the example above, we could ask, "What am I getting from scrolling through my phone?" "Did my worries go away?" Do I truly feel better, and if so, how long did it last?" There is no judgment associated with the answer to these questions but rather an invitation to take a step back and look at behavior and reward in a new light. The goal of this practice is to become disenchanted with the reward and open up space for new behaviors.

Third Gear: Third gear is where the behavior begins to change! In place of old habit loops, we are invited to become open and curious and practice various mindfulness techniques:

  • Noting - For a brief period, use short labels for thoughts, feelings, or sensations as they arise.

  • Loving Kindness - Repeating kind phrases to yourself; May I be at peace, May I be safe, May I be healthy, May I feel love, etc.

  • RAIN - Recognize and relax into what is happening. Accept and allow it to be there. Investigate bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Note what is happening from moment to moment.

  • Body Scan - Starting with your feet, slowly scan upwards and become aware of the sensation in the different parts of your body.

  • Breathe into Anxiety - Choose a breathing exercise to breathe into your anxiety. My favorite is breathed in four, hold for six, and breathe out for eight.

Reverse: When you find yourself slipping back into an old habit loop or driving on autopilot, you're headed backward in reverse! Slipping into reverse is going to happen. I can attest to that! To get out of reverse, shift back into first gear and stay there as long as it takes before moving into second and third gear! By no means is shifting between gears and staying in a forward momentum an easy process. As the saying goes, two steps forward and one step back.

While the analogy of gears pertains to the movement of driving a car, it also involves sitting in the driver's seat! You are in the driver's seat, and anxiety is the passenger. So sit with your anxiety just like you would a family member. You are not alone. You are a part of the anxiety family, and there is no shame in that! The anxiety family is full of wonderful, brave, creative, curious, strong, and amazing individuals.

Blessings for hitting the open road! Buckle up, anxiety!

Walking the Journey with You!


The quote above is from the article, How to Mindfully Sit with Anxiety, by Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC.


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