Facing Your Fears the Right Way

The Truth about Discomfort

I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but life will provide a steady stream of discomfort and there is nothing you can do to change that reality.

In life there will be:

  • Illnesses
  • Injuries
  • Losses
  • Aging
  • Rejections
  • Mistakes
  • Unpleasant Surprises
  • Disappointments
  • Opponents
  • Disgust
  • Horrific Thoughts
  • Undesirable Impulses

…and, of course, anxiety!

Clean Discomfort

It is normal for humans to experience a range of emotions—anxiety is no exception. It is often a person’s reaction to anxiety that turbocharges suffering, not the anxiety itself.

If you are driving on the highway and the car in front of you suddenly slams on its breaks, you will likely experience a sudden onslaught of anxiety. Most people would.

Your breathing will quicken and your heart will beat wildly. Your senses will suddenly become laser-focused on the perceived danger. Your muscles will tense as your brain screams DANGER! You will be flooded with a feeling of urgency.

This normal reaction can be labeled as “clean discomfort.” It is just what happens in these situations. Similarly, if you had the flu you would experience aches, chills, and fever.

There is, however, ways to lessen (to some degree, some of the time) the clean discomfort that you experience, but often people behave in ways that (in the long-run) make their discomfort worse—much worse.

Dirty Discomfort

“Dirty Discomfort” is what gets poured on top of the clean discomfort when you hate, judge, fight, and struggle to get rid of the clean stuff. For example, let’s say that you have a big presentation to give at work.

If you are like many people, you become aware of some anticipatory anxiety. Your brain may paint failure pictures for you in your mind, your body feels well-caffeinated, despite missing your morning cup of coffee, and your muscles want to tighten in anticipation of the impending event. This is your clean discomfort.

You pour dirty discomfort on top of the clean if you respond with:

  • I CAN’T Feel this!
  • This is bad!
  • What a loser I am!
  • Just snap out of it—what is wrong with me!
  • I need to feel better—NOW!
  • Why is the anxiety not going away!
  • GO AWAY NOW!!!
  • Oh no! It is worse!
  • I can’t take this!
  • I’m going to be humiliated when they see how nervous I am!!!

…and so on.

Think about your reaction to the anxiety you experience—can you relate? The dirty discomfort poured onto the clean makes your overall discomfort so much worse. What’s more is that the dirty discomfort makes the anxiety feel more prickly and unpleasant—it greatly increases your sense of suffering.

Coping with Anxious Feelings

Since clean discomfort is unavoidable and dirty discomfort increases your anxiety and sense of suffering there is two goals for coping with anxious feelings.

  1. Let your dirty discomfort drain out as much as possible.
  2. Adaptively minimize your clean discomfort if and when you can, BUT accept what remains.

Draining the “dirty” discomfort

Since dirty discomfort increases when you hate, struggle, fight, and resist your clean discomfort, it makes sense to increase your willingness (in the moment) to experience your this discomfort.

When you find yourself suffering in the face of an OCD or anxiety disorder trigger, try this:

  1. Remind yourself, “That which I resist, persists!” The more you struggle to rid yourself of anxiety, in the face of a trigger, the more you suffer.
  2. Scan your body, look for pockets of struggle. Maybe you are tightening your stomach, fists, or jaw. Maybe you are holding your breath or constricting your breathing.
  3. Let go where you can. Be like a ragdoll on a rollercoaster. Flow softly with the anxiety—let it run its course.
  4. Notice afterwards that you were able to co-exist. It passed and did not result in catastrophe. Notice that letting go of the struggle actually lowered your sense of suffering.

Minimizing “clean” discomfort the right way

Clean discomfort is your experience of discomfort minus the judgement, aversion, and struggle. It is inevitable and unescapable—life will provide a steady stream of clean discomforts. Clean discomfort will come in many shapes and sizes:

  • Sadness
  • Grief
  • Anger
  • Pain
  • And, of course, anxious thoughts and feelings—our current focus

Changing what you can…accepting that which you cannot change

The first step is to become aware of the discomfort and, in the moment, softly accept that it is there—avoid throwing gasoline on the fire by hating, resisting and fighting your experience (it is okay to non-judgmentally dislike it, however).

The next step would be to accept what you cannot change while changing those things that can minimize your clean anxiety over the long run.

Examples of what you can’t change:

  • You are imperfect and will make mistakes
  • Certain physical features (height, for example) or realities about your body (aging and illness, for example)
  • The reality that there are awkward situations in life
  • Your brain will produce dark thoughts and images at times
  • You will experience anxiety at times

No amount of wishing or compulsive behaviors will change these facts.

Let’s look at what you can change.

What you take into your body can significantly impact your anxiety:

  • A poor diet (or skipping meals altogether) can significantly increase your clean discomfort. A good, but not overly-obsessive diet can lead to decreased anxiety.
  • Caffeine is a very reliable anxiety-producer. More caffeine leads to more clean anxiety—nicotine can have the same effect.
  • Alcohol, even though it may decrease anxiety while intoxicated may pack a powerful sucker punch of anxiety the next day.
  • Pot and other drugs may either increase or decrease anxiety in the moment, but can leave you with increased clean anxiety in the long-run while decreasing your anxiety-tolerance muscles.
  • Medications, such as antidepressants can lower your baseline-level of clean anxiety—though they can also make it worse. Make sure to take as prescribed by your medical doctor.

Lifestyle practices can either increase or decrease your clean anxiety levels

  • Facing your fearful triggers, through ERP, may increase your clean discomfort in the short-term, but in the long-term can dramatically improve your clean anxiety. Avoidance and compulsions, on the other hand, may lead to a short-term decrease in anxiety, but maintain higher clean anxiety over the long haul. So what’s it going to be—short-term gain for long-term pain or short-term pain for long-term gain?
  • Most people who practice “mindfulness” have a decrease in their clean levels of anxiety.
  • Exercise, especially cardio can do wonders for minimizing clean discomfort.
  • If you get inadequate sleep, your clean anxiety will be higher.
  • General stress-management strategies can decrease your clean anxiety. Such strategies include, pacing yourself, practicing good time-management, learning to say “no,” decreasing perfectionism, and so on.
  • When you encounter a problem in life, take time for problem-solving, rather than running from problems.

The bottom-line on clean discomfort:

Accept what you cannot change and change what you can—if it is in your long-term best interests.


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