Coastal Center for Anxiety Treatment

Name card of Dr. Eric goodman.

Step 7: Dealing with anxious feelings

Anxious Feelings

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, unpleasant emotions.

Clean Anxiety

So, it is normal for humans to experience a range of emotions, and anxiety is no exception.

If you are driving on the highway and the car in front of you suddenly slams on its brakes, 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 anxiety.” It is just what happens in these situations. Similarly, if you had the flu you would experience aches, chills, and fever.

It is often a person’s reaction to anxiety that turbo-charges suffering, not the anxiety itself. When experiencing anxiety, people often behave in ways that make their anxiety worse—much worse.

Dirty Anxiety

“Dirty anxiety” is what gets poured on top of the clean anxiety 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 might feel overly-caffeinated, despite missing your morning cup of coffee, and your muscles may want to tighten in anticipation of the impending event. This is your clean anxiety. It is simply what shows up for you.

You pour dirty anxiety 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 anxiety poured onto the clean makes your overall discomfort so much worse. What’s more is that the dirty anxiety feels more prickly and unpleasant—it greatly increases your sense of suffering.

Coping with Anxious Feelings

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

  1. Let your dirty discomfort drain out as much as possible.
  2. Minimize your clean discomfort when you can (in ways that are helpful in the long-run), BUT accept what remains.

Draining the “dirty” anxiety

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

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

  1. Remind yourself, “That which I resist, persists—the more I struggle to rid myself of anxiety, the more I 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 rag doll on a roller coaster. 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” anxiety—the right way

Clean anxiety is your experience of anxiety minus the judgment, aversion, and struggle. It is inevitable and inescapable—life will provide a steady stream of clean anxiety in many shapes and sizes:

Change what you can…accept that which you cannot change

The first step is to become aware of the anxiety 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 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:

  • Human imperfection
  • 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
  • Death

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 clean 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 clean 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, will likely increase your clean anxiety 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 clean 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 adequate sleep, your clean anxiety may be lessened.
  • 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 your problems.

So, what do you do with anxious feelings:

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

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