Learning to Tolerate Anxiety

This educational audio helps you to understand the concept of tolerating anxiety and why it is important. The fear of the anxiety and the demand to get rid of it makes the anxiety worse. The more you learn to tolerate anxiety, the less intense and frequent it will be. Developing mindfulness skills increases the ability to tolerate anxiety because mindfulness focuses on the immediate present not on the catastrophic worries about the future. The more that you focus on the “what ifs” regarding anxiety, the more likely your anxiety will be triggered. However, the more you can can understand and accept the anxiety, the less insistent it becomes.


Some of the things I discuss in this audio may be uncomfortable. Usually that is because it is something you don’t want to hear or are resisting. People with anxiety problems often don’t want to hear about learning to tolerate anxiety.

Much of the time when I see new clients who have an anxiety disorder and I ask “What are your goals for therapy?” the first response is an emphatic “I want to get RID of this anxiety! I can’t stand it!” My response is “We can’t do that.” They usually stare at me in shock probably thinking “And this person is the expert with anxiety?!”

I explain to them that we CAN’T get rid of anxiety because anxiety is a normal and important part of our internal defense system. It protects us from danger. We need anxiety and all our emotions to help us navigate the world.

The unpleasant anxiety symptoms that you experience are due to the activation of the autonomic nervous system which is the part of our brain that releases adrenalin when we are threatened in some way. Adrenalin causes our body to be ready for action in case we need to quickly react to the threat. Adrenalin, in appropriate amounts, is very useful to athletes and others who need to react quickly.

As a result of the release of adrenalin, we experience increased heart rate and breathing as well as muscular tension so that our body is prepared to respond. When no apparent threat is present, these changes are often experienced as agitation or anxiety. But they are still NORMAL responses even though the immediate trigger for them may be unknown.

In addition, we may experience other sensations because our brain focuses on the preparation to respond to threat by shutting down unnecessary functions of the body. For instance, the body doesn’t need to be focused on digestion when there is an immediate situation to deal with. As a result, many people experience stomach upset when stressed or anxious.

Many things can cause the activation of the autonomic nervous system. Both physical and emotional threats can cause the release of adrenalin. Both real and imagined events can be perceived as threatening. Even the anxiety symptoms themselves can come to be perceived as a threat.

Our brains naturally try to make sense of our environments. However, if we don’t take charge of this process and instead we let the brain come to its own conclusions we can develop irrational fears. Think of it this way. If a baby is startled, let’s say by a loud sound while playing with a favorite toy, the natural reaction is to cry. However, the cry itself can become distressing to the baby which reinforces the fear. Not understanding that the fear is just a reaction to the loud sound the baby comes to associate the fear with the toy and becomes afraid of the toy.

The same is often true of anxiety. If you are unaware of the source of the anxiety, then you are more likely to associate the anxiety with events or objects that are unrelated. For instance, many people with Panic Disorder are fearful of driving believing that driving is the cause of the panic. Or, people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder may associate certain beliefs and compulsions with the reduction of anxiety such as checking the stove, doors, and windows makes them feel better even though in reality the checking may not make them any safer.

Our emotions reflect the world around us. Emotions are meant to give you information. Unfortunately, many people with anxiety disorders want to ignore the emotions because they are unpleasant or even painful. However, successful people listen to their emotions and tolerate the discomfort because they know that the message of the emotions is more important than the temporary discomfort.

You may find yourself disagreeing with my statement about ignoring the underlying emotions. You may think “I CAN’T ignore the anxiety! It won’t let me.” But most likely, you are trying to ignore emotions or other situations that could be triggering or contributing to the anxiety.

However, the more you understand your anxiety, the more you can learn to manage it. If you understand the true triggers of the anxiety, not what you have associated with the anxiety, you can then take steps to manage those triggers.

However, even when the triggers are not under your control, by learning to tolerate the anxiety symptoms themselves you can gain greater ability to manage your anxiety. I know it seems contrary to your goal. But the demand to get rid of the anxiety only intensifies it. Whereas, the more you accept and tolerate the anxiety, the more it is likely to decrease.

Tolerating anxiety is similar to tolerating chronic pain. The more you demand to get rid of chronic pain, the more it will frustrate you, irritate you, and intensify. However, when you are able to accept the pain as an irritant, but not as something you MUST get rid of, its hold over you tends to reduce and even the intensity of the pain itself may reduce or become less noticeable.

The same is true with anxiety. Demanding to be rid of the anxiety only makes it less tolerable. It becomes a larger presence in your life and your entire focus is on the anxiety. The more you focus on it, the more power you give it in your life.

However, a mindful approach to anxiety is learning to let it “be.” You don’t HAVE to get rid of it. When the anxiety demands your attention, you can very gently refocus yourself to your present activity.

And if the focus on the anxiety IS your present activity, then learn to develop an awareness of other aspects to your life. You can focus on how unpleasant the anxiety is. Or, you can choose to focus on some other more pleasant event in your life. I understand that right now that may not seem possible. You may not believe that it is a choice you can make.

However, by taking small steps towards the goal of developing a more mindful approach to life, you will eventually have more choice in how you focus your attention. The anxiety is like a screaming child throwing a temper tantrum to demand your attention. The more you believe that you have to give in to that demand so as to quiet it, the more likely it will escalate its demands over time.

Instead, you can learn to focus your attention elsewhere and let the anxiety “be.” It is present. It is a part of you. But you don’t have to provide it with your full attention. The anxiety feeds off negative attention. The more attention you give it, the more it demands.

But if you say “So what if I feel anxious?” If you believe “I can tolerate this anxiety. It may be unpleasant but it won’t kill me” the anxiety begins to lose its power over you. Its only power is the demand that you MUST get rid of the anxiety.

You might prefer to get rid of the anxiety, but the more you realize you don’t have to, the less the anxiety controls your life.

The demand that we shouldn’t have a problem often causes more problems than the problem itself. The demand that you should get rid of your anxiety can cause you more distress than the anxiety itself. When we can accept a problem and take a matter-of-fact approach to managing the problem we have greater likelihood of attaining success.

Instead of demanding to get rid of anxiety, be determined to tolerate the anxiety. The anxiety is not your fault. It is a condition that you have. You can’t wish it away. However, you CAN tolerate it. You know you can because you have already lived with the anxiety. You are a survivor. It hasn’t defeated you. So you know that you can already tolerate it.

By removing the demand to get rid of the anxiety you are able to remove a portion of the anxiety. You are removing the anxiety about having the anxiety. The more you develop a “so what?” attitude towards the anxiety, the more you remove the stress about having anxiety. You can learn to believe “So what if I have anxiety? It can’t destroy my life unless I let it. It is just a feeling, a sensation I experience, no different than if I had to live with pain or an injury. It is a pain. It is unpleasant. But I can tolerate it.”

The interesting thing that occurs with this “so what?” attitude is that the anxiety does often decrease. But it only does if you truly believe “so what?” When you truly believe that you can tolerate the anxiety, the anxiety often decreases. This is because it is the demand to get rid of the anxiety and the fear of “what if the anxiety doesn’t go away?” that makes it stronger.

You may not be able to get rid of all anxiety because as I said before, anxiety has a purpose. Also, there may be a certain level of anxiety that occurs because of your anxiety disorder or the stress in your life. However, you may be able to rid yourself of a significant portion of it by learning to tolerate it. By learning that you don’t have to get rid of it.

Have you ever had the experience of something external annoying you? Maybe a sound such as workmen building a house or a dog barking? And the more you focused on how annoying it was, the more irritated and distressed you became by the sound? However, then you decided to just focus on your immediate activity, your work, or reading, or whatever you were doing? And after a while you realized that the sound didn’t seem as noticeable or as obnoxious?

This is because our focus on something can increase the intensity of our perception. This can be a good thing as well. For instance, when you focus on flowers or a painting, the colors may appear more vibrant or the design more detailed. Attention allows us to fully appreciate our experiences. However, there may be experiences that you don’t want to fully appreciate. But giving your focus to those experiences only intensifies them in the same way.

So the more you focus on anxiety, just like pain, it will tend to increase. This doesn’t mean you should ignore anxiety completely because if the anxiety is trying to provide you with a message and you ignore it, then other problems may be created. In addition, the anxiety may intensify because you are not heeding the message.

What I mean, however, is to think of anxiety as a messenger, not as a tormentor. It exists to help you, not harm you. It is like a good friend who would rather tell you something that may be painful in order to help you than to let you suffer by not knowing. I know it is quite a stretch to think of anxiety as a good friend especially when it causes so much distress in your life. However, just like a good friend it is more likely to quiet when it knows it has been heard.

The more you are able to tolerate the anxiety, the more you will be able to listen to it. And as you listen to it you may find, surprisingly, how helpful it can be. Anxiety is an early warning system. It is a protector. However, the message may not always be one you want to hear. Learning to tolerate anxiety may not be easy but it can certainly be worthwhile.

Therefore, change your focus. Instead of focusing on ridding yourself of anxiety, focus on listening to it. Focus on your ability to tolerate it. Focus on just letting it “be.” You can switch your focus to other aspects of your present experience. Developing a mindful attitude teaches you how to do that. You don’t have to allow anxiety to consume your focus. There are many other aspects of your life and the world around you that you can focus on.

A mindful attitude means focusing on your present experience. When you focus on the demand of getting rid of anxiety or worrying about the anxiety you are not in the present but in the future. When you focus on how awful you felt yesterday with the anxiety you are not in the present but in the past. When you are in the present, you can choose your focus. Certainly, anxiety may be a part of your focus but it doesn’t require all your attention.

Practicing mindful awareness is an awareness of your full experience. Even though anxiety may be a part of your experience it is not your full experience. In every moment there are other aspects to your experience. You can choose to bring your awareness to those other aspects. Simple things. Some pleasant. Some neutral. Some unpleasant. But all are tolerable. Choose your focus.

As with my other audios on changing thinking, more you listen to this audio, the more it can help change your thinking. The more you repeat the things you learn, the more helpful it becomes.

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