Working with the Scary Physical Sensations of Anxiety

The sensations that accompany anxiety and panic can often be the worst, scariest part of it all. It’s amazing what anxiety can do to the physical body, coming up with new and better ways to make us believe that we’re in significant danger.

I can’t tell you how many times I would Google new symptoms that arose with panic, because I thought there was NO WAY that this could just be anxiety. It had to be something actually dangerous or serious. And of course, I would always be redirected back to anxiety as the cause of these horrifying symptoms.

As always, if you’re actually concerned about a physical condition, I recommend getting a medical workup. But I’m mostly talking about those of us who have gotten work ups and reassurances from doctors, yet we still refuse to believe it’s anxiety and we continue to believe that we’re in danger or that we can’t handle the sensations.

We can become so incredibly fixated on these symptoms, which only magnifies them in our awareness. I remember when I was in the worst of panic, I had a massage session with my yoga mentor. I was telling him all these terrifying physical symptoms I was experiencing. He smiled softly and said, “It sounds like you’re describing sensations that everyone feels. You’re just very, very attuned to them, so it makes you ‘feel’ them more strongly.”

And he was exactly right. When we focus all of our heightened awareness on a physical sensation, it’s only going to grow. It’s like the clothes on your body. Most of the time, you don’t notice the sensation of these clothes touching your skin. That would be very distracting throughout the day. But if you take a moment and give it ALL of your attention, you’re going to be aware of it and feel it and it might even bother you, when it never did before.

What I’ve learned is that the actual physical sensations don’t matter. They’re all interchangeable. You might tell me that you’re worried about the dizziness, or the strange heart beats, or the nausea, or the shortness of breath, convinced that if you could just figure out a way to “fix” that sensation, it all wouldn’t be so bad. But in truth, it’s all the same. It’s anxiety picking the thing that scares you the most.

Sabrina Weyeneth, a Psychotherapist, says “We have to get better at tolerating what we might perceive as unpleasant sensations in the body. If we’re frightened of certain mood states or feelings, we’ll tense and brace against them which only serves to make them stronger. Instead, the job at hand, is to practice opening into difficult sensations in the body- befriending them and gradually relaxing into them.”

The more we fear a sensation, the more it has control over us. If we can begin to understand that these sensations cannot and will not hurt us, we can begin to allow them to be as they are.

It takes unbelievable bravery to sit with fear and to go against every part of your survival instinct. It’s extremely uncomfortable. Even if you are aware that a sensation is simply caused by anxiety and not something you actually need to fear, it doesn’t make it any more comfortable to feel. But in order to move beyond your resistance, we have to be willing to feel it, without bracing ourselves.

This is where a strong breath practice comes in. We practice breathing into the pain and discomfort. This is where a strong self-talk practice comes in. We tell ourselves loving, positive, encouraging things as we sit with difficulty. Over and over again, we work on meeting the sensations with space and softness.

I know it feels like it might be too much. But you CAN handle it. These sensations will not break you or cause you to burst. You are strong enough to feel what’s already in your body.

If you’d like to practice sitting with and opening to difficult sensations, try out this short meditation.

Over time, we learn to focus less and less on the sensations and more on lowering overall anxiety levels. We learn to redirect our heightened attention away from focusing on the sensation and onto something more productive, like the breath, the present moment, and the world around us, trusting that if we don’t focus on the sensation, everything will still be okay. We’ll still be safe. 

If you’re ready to learn more about how to work with fear, and open up to anxiety with love and kindness, please join me in my Overcoming Panic Attacks online program, where you’ll receive extra support and guidance on your journey.

Namaste, my sweet friends.

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