Why resisting your anxiety tends to backfire (and what you should do instead).

Dr. Melissa Shepard Smiling in white lab coat

By Dr. Melissa Shepard

Anxiety feels bad.

 

And whenever we feel bad, our instinct is to try to get rid of whatever is causing that feeling. And strangely enough, this instinct is exactly wrong.

 

Why?

 

Well, first of all, it’s impossible to get rid of anxiety completely. We can learn to manage it, move with it, and reduce it, but it will never completely disappear. Anxiety is an important emotion that has evolved to protect us. Although it can be faulty sometimes (as is the case with anxiety disorders), it’s an essential emotion for our very survival, so you better believe it’s not going down without a fight.

 

Second, trying to get rid of anxiety draws our attention to it. I use the “pink elephant” (or purple giraffe, green lion, yellow mouse, whatever other colorful critter you want to imagine) metaphor in therapy a lot. I ask my patients to imagine a pink elephant in great detail. We focus on it for a few minutes, bringing the image to our mind’s eye.

 

Then I tell them to stop thinking of the pink elephant. And no matter what, I tell them to not let that pink elephant come back into their mind.

 

Of course, I’m setting them up for failure. As soon as I tell my patient to stop thinking about the pink elephant, the first thought is, “I can’t think about the pink elephant,” which is, in and of itself, thinking about the pink elephant.

 

What we resist persists when it comes to our inner world. Our attempts to get rid of pain, anxiety, sadness, anger, etc., often serve to focus us on the very thing we want to avoid.

 

Instead, we have to lean into the anxiety. By that, I mean treat it with kindness. Greet it as you would an old (albeit annoying) friend. Imagine opening up your heart to the anxiety when it arises and approaching it with softness rather than the cold, hard resistance that you usually put up.

 

As someone who struggled with severe panic disorder, I know this is easier said than done. But here are some mindset shifts that can help:

  • Remind yourself that the anxiety isn’t trying to hurt you: it is trying to protect you by pushing you to take action. You can thank it for its concern, but advise it that you are not going to take action at this time.

  • Remind yourself that there isn’t anything waiting on the other side. We often fear that the anxiety is going to get worse. Or that it might cause something catastrophic to happen. But while anxiety can be extremely uncomfortable, it can’t hurt you.

  • Remind yourself that the anxiety will come and go. When I’m feeling anxious, I like to imagine I’m out at sea on a little boat. The waves are gently rolling by, making my little boat go up and down. I imagine my anxiety is like the waves rising and falling. Just like those waves have a natural rhythm, so does the anxiety, and it will come and go without any interference from me.

As I mentioned, these mindset changes can be tricky. Many people find it helpful first to practice acceptance of anxiety when they aren’t particularly anxious. There are many great guided meditations for anxiety that can help, and I have some that I have personally created on Patreon or in my Anxiety Bootcamp. And I’ll link a few workbooks that can help you build a different (and more productive) relationship with your anxiety.

 

Amazon Affiliate Disclosure: Please note that links may include Amazon links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. This means that I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. Commissions help me run the site, including this blog.

 

The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free from Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (A New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook) by John Forsyth and Georg Eifert

 

The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety (The 8-Week Solution to Help You Manage Anxiety, Worry & Stress) by Tanya Peterson

 

The Mindful Way through Anxiety: Break Free from Chronic Worry and Reclaim Your Life by Susan Orsillo and Lizabeth Roemer

 

Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman

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