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The Missed Opportunity of Anxiety

It’s symptoms like anxious feelings that often drive people to seek a therapist. In Mindfulness we refer to symptoms as ‘suffering’, meaning, being uncomfortable. And of course when beginning therapy, the goal is usually symptom reduction- like feeling less anxious. It’s a perfectly reasonable goal, except that it may be unreaslistic (since anxiety is a natural and inevitable human feeling) and it misses an opportunity: The opportunity to use the difficulty of feeling anxious as a catalyst for productive change.

It’s a waste of a perfectly good anxious feeling, a perfectly good catalyst for change. Change catalysts are precious, so it’s not good to waste them. In this case I suggest a goal that has two benefits:

Improving ability to feel one’s feelings without struggling with them;

and cultivating the attitude that each uncomfortable event is a chance to develop and grow as people- to increase our resilience. When we are more resilient, we’re more free to open ourselves to a wide-range of experiences. We’re less afraid and tight, more open to our full selves. Life is more fun, we’re more alive, and we’re less conflicted inside. By contrast, if our orientation is to simply be rid of uncomfortable feelings as quickly as possible, we’re in a battle with part of ourselves. And that may paint us into a corner, with fewer options- we have to get rid of the feeling. That may lead us to conclude that taking anti-anxiety medications is the only way to get relief.

Medications have side effects which are often not fully studied; and they are expensive money-wise. But they are expensive in terms of opporunity: They cost us the opportunity to learn to work with our challenging feelings under our own steam. (I’m not saying it’s never right to use medications. They play an important role for many people. But they are sometimes the first resort, rather than the last.)

In Mindfulness, we learn to relax around the discomfort, to stop struggling and judging the feeling, and to watch for the sense of freedom that comes when we’re less afraid of what we feel. Interestingly, a mindful approach often helps us actually be less anxious overall, or at least less anxious about being anxious. Mindfulness helps us perceive that much of the discomfort of anxiety happens in how we react to it.

The relief comes in not struggling with the anxiety- and that is a more sustainable, satisfying relief, rather than the quick-fix relief of removing the uncomfortable feeling of the moment. Which one sounds like the kind of relief you’d like to have?

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