Surviving 2020, One Panic Attack at a Time

Learning to be present, even when we don't like the present
November 26, 2020 Updated: November 26, 2020

Wow, 2020! Our year of anxiety. Many of us are walking around with a sense of trepidation, if not abject fear. It sits in our bellies and brains. Sometimes it feels like there’s so much on the line right now that there’s literally no way to be OK.

So, what are we to do with all this anxiety? When the new normal is anxious, can we also feel peaceful?

While it may not be what we want to hear, the only way through our anxiety is through it. In order to ease our anxiety, we have to stop running from it and actually experience it.

Amped up on caffeine, I had spent the morning busying myself with one task after another. With a hyperzealous, Virgo-style efficiency, I was getting an inordinate amount done, which was good, but I could also sense a kind of franticness in myself. As productive as I felt, I also knew that it wouldn’t have been possible to stop moving, stop getting stuff done, stop accomplishing, stop checking the boxes, just plain stop. I was running, internally and externally. Then it occurred to me to stop and ask myself what I was running from.

When I asked myself this question, however, I was careful not to frame it as an intellectual quandary. Such an inquiry can easily become an invitation to describe (to ourselves) all the things we’re anxious about, to mentally regurgitate the list of scary things and remind ourselves why we have a right to be afraid. But this isn’t helpful. We already know what we’re afraid of and why.

When we become aware of the fact that we’re running from something inside ourselves, that’s our cue to stop. We have to (compassionately) override the instinctive part of our brain that’s desperately trying to keep us away from what scares us.

I spent years, even decades, running, literally and figuratively. I got accolades for my running, but my real work was in learning to stop. That is, to get inside here and feel its edges, no matter what here contains.

When we feel the anxiety of what’s happening in our world, we can invite ourselves directly into the experience of that anxiety. Not our story or narrative on it, but the experience itself, what it feels like in our senses. We can literally say to ourselves, “feel its edges, feel its uncomfortableness.” Simultaneously, we can give ourselves permission to not have to understand it, or make it feel better. Just step into it like a wet suit for scuba diving.

Maybe it’s all my years of being a serious athlete, but there’s something challenging and even exciting about experiencing something difficult. There’s a real payoff when we stretch outside our comfort zone. Dropping into our actual experience, whether it’s anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, whatever it is, can in fact be a fascinating and beneficial exercise.

And here’s the thing: When we stop running and drop into whatever is under all the running, we feel better. It’s the paradox of all paradoxes: When we allow ourselves to experience our anxiety, we feel less anxious. It’s as if the anxiety benefits or is soothed by our own presence.

Experiencing it is not collapsing into our emotional storylines about it. It is inhabiting the experience itself, the physical and emotional experience of it.

So, give it a whirl. The next time you feel anxious or any other unwanted emotion, try thinking of it as a challenge. If you’re like me, you can make it a kind of athletic or spiritual challenge, like climbing Mount Everest.

Instead of distracting yourself from the emotion, do the least intuitive thing possible: Lean into the feeling you’re running from. Wear it.

Hey, if the experiment is a disaster and experiencing it proves worse than running from it, you can always peel off the wet suit and put your sneakers back on.

Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, public speaker, and author of the upcoming “Can’t Stop Thinking” (2021) and “The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World.” For more information, visit NancyColier.com