Coping with Anxiety by Welcoming Stress

Reid Wilson on Mindful Stress Management

Reid Wilson

As I tell this story, you can ask yourself, "What's this have to do with the practice of therapy?" I'll answer, I promise---after the story.

I visit the bathroom to discover the toilet is plugged up. I flush to clear it and then . . . filthy brown toilet water is suddenly spilling over onto my white Berber carpet! I rush to turn off the intake faucet and it doesn't help! The water is literally pouring over the side onto my white Berber carpet!

But instead of letting myself stew in my own whine, this time, I take a step back and say quietly to myself something that's become my guiding maxim for such situations: "This is exactly what I need right now." Suddenly, all sound quiets in my mind. I'm calm and clear. I continue cleaning up efficiently, but without the mental suffering caused by all the background noise.

This is a trick I now draw on frequently. For all the riches of my life---family and friends who love me, health, satisfying work, a steady income---it never seems like enough. I tend to complain constantly and resist what's happening all the time. At any given moment, I'm complaining that this or that isn't as good, fast, satisfying, exciting, beautiful, or enlightening as it should be. Something is too cold, warm, salty, bright, dark, cheap, or old. I'm not strong, clever, wise, nice, diligent, or happy enough. In short, things are happening to me and feelings are rising in me that I don't want.

Of course, I don't exactly want my toilet spilling all over my rug. When I tell myself, "This is exactly what I want right now," I'm disciplining myself to stay in the present moment---not to wish for other moments or to wish that my life was different at the moment, but to accept that this moment is all I have at the moment. The only power possible in the moment is to face whatever it demands. When we stop filtering every event through our judgments of what it should or could be like, what we really want, we become alert to our surroundings and curious about how we can interact with them. This is much more fun than complaining that the world isn't following the rules that our little egos generate.

Each time I'm tempted to resist a moment of distress, anxiety, or painful reflection about the past, I invite greater suffering. When I don't accept the present moment, everything bogs down from there. I generate a complaint, I declare there's something wrong, and I try to squirm my way out. At that point, I'm stuck in avoidance and can't move forward to actually solve the problem. But if I can open myself to the painful reality of the moment, I actually suffer less.

Now, as a therapist, I want to help clients discover this same kind of freedom---freedom from the anxieties that imprison them. And I now think that, rather than trying to suppress the symptoms of their anxiety, clients can better free themselves by engaging with their symptoms in a spirit of welcome and open-minded curiosity: "Hello, symptoms. Who are you and what are you trying to tell me?"

Increasing Discomfort

Ideally, if anxious clients can respond by saying "yes" to an anxiety-provoking encounter---to accept exactly what they're experiencing in that moment---then they'll be back in control. They can learn to do this if they can endure discomfort. But for many, anxiety has become so dominant that they can't make such a shift directly. To stay on course, they need some sense of safety and a strong faith.

In the early stages, when their courage and confidence is still at low ebb, I don't suggest they have to commit to actually trying to change---I only propose that they may want to try experimenting a little. As I suggest homework, I use expressions like, "How about playing with this move?" and "Perhaps you can fool around with these responses." I imply that these strategies are malleable and temporary: "What do you think about trying this move a few times just to see what happens? We can talk about it next time." It's easier for clients to set aside defenses and endure distress if they think the "trial" will only be for a few moments.

Breaking Through to the Present

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.

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.

This blog is excerpted from “Facing Our Worst Fears."Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Anxiety/Depression | Aging

Tags: avoidance | consciousness | depression | ED | family | HEAL | psychotherapy | stress anxiety | TED | therapist | therapy | Psychotherapy Networker | stress | anxious | Reid Wilson

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