How do I feel okay? Like avoiding this heavy feeling in my chest everytime? I feel anxious always.
Asked by Rei
Thank you for your message and sharing with me how you've been interacting with yourself, especially on how you've been handling unpleasant feelings and emotions. As you said this has also affected your life significantly. Perhaps by addressing how to handle unpleasant emotions in a healthier manner, we can dive into addressing the issues in your life as well?
Often the experience we've had about anxiety (or any strong emotion such as stress / depression) was so terrible (even physically) that our body sort of become traumatized to it. We naturally become nervous about these unpleasant feelings because we don't like these sensations and experiences. As a result we would do everything we can to avoid / fight these anxious feelings, often using numbing techniques such as using substances or distracting ourselves. Yet only to find that the anxiety gets stronger over time because we have never been able to make peace with it.
Therefore rather than trying to "change" / "fight" / "get rid of" these unpleasant sensations, perhaps the best thing that we can do is to make room for these feelings and even sensations, while staying on track to do what brings us meaning and fulfillment. Floating without judging / blaming ourselves through the anxiety experience, while focusing on making room for anxiety can be helpful.
Here is a short video put up by the author of the book "The Happiness Trap" which does a good job explaining this concept:
Please take some time to watch this and share your thoughts later :) I also highly recommend picking that book as well to supplement this therapy process.
We as human beings do not like sufferings, therefore often times we would be doing our best to fight it. However just like the analogy of swimming vs floating that we have talked about before, the more we fight it, the faster we sink. While if we can learn to float with these waves, we will realize that we won't sink.
Radical acceptance / Expansion is about accepting of life on life's terms and not resisting what you cannot or choose not to change. Radical Acceptance is about saying yes to life and all that life brings (including all sorts of emotions such as joy, sadness, peace and pain), just as it is without forcing our ways into our lives.
Why do we want to accept life as it is? Because with anything that we do in life that brings us meaning and fulfillment, it always accompany a wide range of emotions, we can't possibly just choose the ones that we like and fight / avoid those that we don't like. Learning to experience all emotions as they are, is a sign that we are living our lives to the fullest.
To do so we must learn to accept (and make room for) any unpleasant sensations, feelings or thoughts that we experience.
We don't want to fight it because the more we fight, the stronger they will come back.
We don't want to avoid it either because the more we avoid, the more we'll be afraid of it.
So the key here is to make room for these sensations, feelings and thoughts, while continue to do what brings us meaning and fulfillment in life.
Learning to "co-exist" with these feelings will naturally reduce the intensity of them.
Floating, is a form of learning to accept these feelings and make room for it.
Let me give you some practical guidelines on what I mean by accepting these feelings and make room for it.
You can look up "expansion technique" under Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for more information as well.
How to accept our emotions (and make room for them):
1. OBSERVE. Bring awareness to the feelings in your body.
2. BREATHE. Take a few deep breaths. Breathe into and around them.
3. EXPAND. Make room for these feelings. Create some space for them.
4. ALLOW. Allow them to be there. Make peace with them
Some people find it helpful to silently say to themselves, 'I don't like this feeling, but I
have room for it,' or 'It's unpleasant, but I can accept it.'
• When you're feeling an unpleasant emotion, the first step is to take a few slow, deep
breaths, and quickly scan your body from head to toe.
• You will probably notice several uncomfortable sensations. Look for the strongest
sensation - the one that bothers you the most. For example, it may be a lump in your
throat, or a knot in your stomach, or an ache in your chest.
• Focus your attention on that sensation. Observe it curiously, as if you are a friendly
scientist, discovering some interesting new phenomenon.
• Observe the sensation carefully. Notice where it starts and where it ends. Learn as much
about it as you can. If you had to draw a line around the sensation, what would the outline
look like? Is it on the surface of the body, or inside you, or both? How far inside you
does it go? Where is the sensation most intense? Where is it weakest? How is it different
in the center than around the edges? Is there any pulsation, or vibration within it? Is it
light or heavy? Moving or still? What is its temperature?
• Take a few more deep breaths, and let go of the struggle with that sensation. Breathe
into it. Imagine your breath flowing in and around it.
• Make room for it. Loosen up around it. Allow it to be there. You don't have to like it or
want it. Simply let it be.
• The idea is to observe the sensation - not to think about it. So when your mind starts
commenting on what's happening, just say 'Thanks, mind!' and come back to observing.
• You may find this difficult. You may feel a strong urge to fight with it or push it away.
If so, just acknowledge this urge, without giving in to it. (Acknowledging is rather like
nodding your head in recognition, as if to say 'There you are. I see you.') Once you've
acknowledged that urge, bring your attention back to the sensation itself.
• Don't try to get rid of the sensation or alter it. If it changes by itself, that's okay. If it
doesn't change, that's okay too. Changing or getting rid of it is not the goal.
• You may need to focus on this sensation for anything from a few seconds to a few
minutes, until you completely give up the struggle with it. Be patient. Take as long as you
need. You're learning a valuable skill.
• Once you've done this, scan your body again, and see if there's another strong sensation
that's bothering you. If so, repeat the procedure with that one.
• You can do this with as many different sensations as you want to. Keep going until you
have a sense of no longer struggling with your feelings.
• As you do this exercise one of two things will happen: either your feelings will change -
or they won't. It doesn't matter either way. This exercise is not about changing your
feelings. It's about accepting them.
Looking forward to talking with you more,
(MSW, LICSW, LMHC)