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What's happening here? Instead of experiencing the symptom as interrupting and disturbing the present moment, we invite the symptom into the present moment--at which point, we're in charge, and the symptom is working for us. We prove that we have the ability to achieve a present consciousness that's larger than the symptom.

Then we can move forward with comparatively little resistance, and perhaps some curiosity and interest. When all I have to do is be the worst group therapist in the room, I'm ready to go. When anxious people take on the "challenge" of shaking even more, racing their heart even harder, making the lump in the throat even bigger, they believe they have the skills to meet the challenge. And that changes everything, paradoxically making the heart slow, calming the shakes, and eliminating the lump.

The problems we suffer with anxiety often continue not because we have symptoms, but because we resist the fact that we're experiencing symptoms--doing our utmost to block out the symptoms, rather than getting to know them a little bit. Most of our clients come to us trying to end something unpleasant, seeking both comfort and predictability in their lives. The desire for a life without stress or doubt is perfectly natural. And yet, we compound our clients' problems when we collude in their goal of simply making the unpleasantness go away. Our objective should not simply be to block their discomfort and allay their doubts, but to help reduce their suffering--ultimately, a completely different task.

Discomfort is an inevitable byproduct of interacting with the world and learning what life's rules entail. Doubt arrives as we challenge the status quo and muster the courage to explore our own potential for creativity. Suffering, in contrast, arrives when we insist on playing life's game according to our own private rules, without doubt or discomfort. Not only is this enterprise doomed to fail, when we try to avoid the symptoms of our existential anxiety, we foreclose the possibility of living fully and exuberantly in the present. Instead of saying when adversity strikes, "I want to push this away so as not to experience it," I'm finding that accepting it as it unfolds in the present is the most efficient way around it.

Present tense is what it's all about--even if the present tense isn't always so wonderful. If I can be present, I become powerful--I'll have tossed aside the dominance of my doubts and desires. My mind and body can focus on the task immediately in front of me. I want to engage in the present, not push it away. That'll guide me to my future. I don't want to be experiencing this and wanting that. When I stay with "this" without resistance, whether it's my disappointment, anger, or pain, I have a platform from which I can move forward to something better.

How do we make this shift in consciousness? In the midst of a conflict, to tell yourself, "I'm okay with this experience" places you with the problem in the present. You let go of your rigid goals of how this moment should be and settle into what the moment is, not knowing how it'll turn out or should turn out, but more ready to face what comes.

Reid Wilson, Ph.D., is associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and coauthor of Stop Obsessing! How to Overcome Your Obsessions and Compulsions. His newest book is Facing Panic: Self-Help for People with Panic Attacks. Contact: rrw@med.unc.edu.

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