I have struggled with anxiety my entire life. Though it went undiagnosed for more than a decade, I spent most of my childhood in a quiet state of panic. In middle school I became so overwhelmed while studying for tests that I was often unable to retain any of the information, and frequently flunked my exams. I was outspoken and spirited at home, but once I stepped into a social setting I stumbled over my sentences. I hated it — I hated myself for it. “Try to relax,” my parents and teachers would tell me. They’d notice my shoulders tensing up toward my ears — the clearest sign that I am feeling anxious — and force them down with their hands, urging me to “calm down.” But trying to tell an anxious person to calm down is like asking a newborn to stop crying; as much as we may want to (and trust me, we do), it’s just not that simple. Over the years I have tried countless techniques to overcome my anxiety. From medication and therapy to breathing exercises and tension release training, nothing has really worked. Sure, some of the practices momentarily lessened it, but the feeling of panic never went away. According to Harvard psychotherapist Ronald D. Siegel, PsyD, trying to get rid of anxiety is exactly where I, and many others suffering from it, go wrong. In his mindfulness meditation practice, Stepping into Fear, Dr. Siegel encourages his students to turn their attention toward, and even befriend, their anxiety, rather than resist it and try to make it go away. “The arousal of panic is really excitement,” he told me over the phone. “It’s not really different in the body than feeling really excited. But depending on our frame of mind, depending on whether we’re resisting it or not, whether we’re fearing it or not, it can be a terribly unpleasant experience.” No kidding. Stepping into Fear begins like any other meditation, focusing on the breath and quieting the mind. But it quickly takes a turn when Dr. Siegel asks you, the listener, to think of something that makes them anxious. Once you have a clear idea of what that is, he asks you to increase your anxiety by thinking of a scenario that’s even worse. After that, a scenario even worse. This goes on for about 20 minutes, until he brings the focus back to the breath and the body. The theory behind it is that the more comfortable we get with the sensations that come with anxiety — panic, fear, and accelerated heartbeat — the more we will discover that the emotions associated with these sensations come and go, like everything else. Of course, traditional mindfulness meditation doesn't involve encouraging yourself to reach ever-greater heights of stress, but the concept of listening to what your body is telling you and acknowledging that feelings come and go — and you'll be okay throughout all of them — definitely seems to have legs. Take it from Fadel Zeidan, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist: In 2013, Dr. Zeidan recruited 15 anxiety-ridden volunteers with no prior meditation experience to undergo a study where he would measure their anxiety levels via MRI, before and after they studied mindfulness meditation. The results? Anxiety levels dropped by nearly 40% after the meditation practice. “[The study] showed that just a few minutes of mindfulness meditation can help reduce normal everyday anxiety,” Dr. Zeidan said in a press release.
Willingly stepping into an anxiety attack is about as fun as putting on a pair of heels when you already have blisters.
So yeah, “normal” meditation seems fine, but when I first heard about the Stepping into Fear technique, I thought it sounded totally nuts. Why would I want to induce an anxiety attack? And to be honest, I’ve never been big on meditating. But my anxiety was at its peak, and I was desperate for a coping method, so I decided to give it a go. Willingly stepping into an anxiety attack is about as fun as putting on a pair of heels when you already have blisters. It’s painful. It’s uncomfortable. And you regret it immediately. But over the course of the 20-minute meditation, which brought forth everything from increased heart rate to full blown tears, I discovered that my mind actually started to wander away from the things that I’m constantly anxious or worried about. And unlike in other meditations, where a distracted mind is something to combat, this mental meandering was a breath of relief that not only informed me that anxiety passes, but that whatever I am afraid of or avoiding is only as big a deal as I make it. It’s here now, but it’s just as likely to be gone in a moment. Here’s the other thing we don’t usually realize, especially in the thick of an anxiety attack: What we feel anxious about are often the things that matter to us. An interview, a date, a presentation — our fear partly crops up because we want to make sure things go well. And despite our anxiety about such situations, with enough courage and acknowledgement, we are able to stride alongside the discomfort and accomplish the things that scare us. As Dr. Siegel told me, “Courage is not about not feeling or avoiding fear. Courage is about doing what’s frightening and staying with the fear because the activity is something that you believe is worthwhile.” Anxiety is something I still struggle with. I imagine that it always will be. But sitting with it, as opposed to trying to push it away, has started to form what I like to think of as a little muscle of tolerance that’s made each attack a little more manageable, and a lot less frequent. And ultimately what I’ve learned is that not only is it easier to embrace my fear than try to force myself to relax, but it makes a lot more sense. Force and relax just don’t go together the way breath and anxiety do.