Becoming curious about anxiety: Anxious Feelings

The physical sensations/feelings that arise when we’re anxious can be incredibly unpleasant and can sometimes seem completely overwhelming.

These sensations often include:

  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Weakness in the limbs
  • Sweating and an elevated heart-rate
  • Shaking and trembling
  • Nausea

When we experience these sensations, we tend to want to get rid of them (aversion) in any way that we can, or evade them at all costs (avoidance).

These are common and understandable reactions.

However, just like everything in life, we need to bear in mind that the attitude through which we approach these sensations is very important.

It’s fairly clear that neither aversion nor avoidance are useful or reliable ways of dealing with our anxious feelings.

Instead, what we tend to notice is that the more we avert or avoid them, the stronger and more frequent they become.

Three of the main reasons why this happens are:

  1. Feelings are trying to tell us something. If we ignore or push them away, the thought/situation to which the feelings refer will remain unresolved and will inevitably return when a similar thought/situation arises in the future.
  2. Aversion and avoidance, far from promoting our well-being, perpetuate the unpleasant feelings. By focusing on the idea that certain feelings need to be averted or avoided, we give them energy. This kind of focused energy ensures that they will continue to return. Just think: if you spent a significant part of your day trying not to imagine a purple teapot, you would likely spend most of your day imagining a purple teapot!
  3. Aversion and avoidance presume a judgement of “bad” or “wrong”. It is not the actually physical sensations that result in our suffering – it’s the struggle that comes along with trying to avoid or avert them!

If we can understand and accept that the above is true, we can begin to practice ways of responding to unpleasant sensations in ways that are more useful and healthy. We can end this perpetual struggle by:

replacing avoidance with curiosity, and aversion with interest.

Curiosity, by definition, is non-judgmental.

If we’re open and non-judgmental, we are not suffering.

Consider how similar some of the sensations associated with anxiety are to the physical experience of excitement. How can the same sensations lead to suffering in one situation and not in the other?

This is down to avoidance. Avoidance means we are judging the sensations to be “bad”. Avoidance leads to a struggle, and this struggle leads to suffering.

Interest too, by definition, is non-judgmental.

If anything, interest presumes there is something to discover and understand.

If we can develop an interest in the anxious feelings, we give ourselves the space to discover if they are trying to tell us something useful. From here, we can decide if they are worth acting upon or if we should let them pass on their own.

Try this practice the next time you feel anxious:

  • Sit down and close your eyes
  • Notice where in the body the sensations are most dominant
  • Without judgment or presumption, examine the details of the feelings. If the feelings are most dominant in the stomach, become curious and interested in the various elements that result in the overall sensation, e.g. tightness, undulation, temperature, if it resonates or moves to different parts of the body, etc…
  • If you can, allow yourself to actually enjoy the sensations, like you would in relation to feelings associated with excitement. Recognising the similarities between the experiences can help with this
  • While staying curious and interested, I find it useful to consciously name each sensation as it arises, e.g. “tightness”, “warmth”, etc…, as this allows us to remain focused and non-judgmental
  • As the sensations gradually begin to subside, allow them to do so and become curious about there passing
  • Once they have passed, as they always do, open your eyes and reflect upon how different that experience was in comparison to the usual experience, i.e. getting wrapped up or overwhelmed by the anxious sensation
  • Repeat as often as you like. Like everything, it becomes easier and more enjoyable the more you practice

Feel free to let me know how you get on in the comments section below!

I will be updating this blog regularly with self-help for anxiety practices, so that you can begin breaking this cycle. Or you can head over here where I talk about some ways that you can continue this journey now.

About the Author:

I am a fully qualified counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Dublin, Ireland. From my experience I have seen the transformative effects of an open-minded, non-judgemental therapeutic relationship and how it can help us to make useful and healthy changes to how we behave, think and feel about ourselves and our relationships with others. I hope you find some useful information here and feel free to contact me through my website.

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