Cultivating the safety needed to turn towards sensations of anxiety

Healing from anxiety is ultimately about developing the courage to feel unpleasant sensations, thoughts, and emotions.  It’s our inability to be present with these experiences that leads to unskillful behaviors like obsessing and emotional eating.  However, it’s not always easy to turn towards these sensations.  Often they are incredibly strong and can seem downright scary.  During my decade of OCD therapy I was never really encouraged to turn towards what was happening in my body.  I was encouraged to create exposures to get more comfortable with triggering stimuli, but never to intentionally try to be with the unpleasantness that was triggered in my body.  

There is often a cultural (or maybe human) fear of being with what’s happening in our bodies and a mistrust that we can handle it.  In my own experience I know that there have been many, many times when the sensations were too scary and too difficult and turning towards them wasn’t a good option.  There has to be a requisite amount of safety before we turn towards.  In a nutshell this whole path is being able to discern between safety and investigation.  We essentially go back and forth between the I and N of the RAIN tool that I discuss on this blog.  It’s really a caring investigation that heals anxiety.  

We can nurture and offer compassionate care to ourselves to feel safe and we can get curious in order to investigate what’s happening in our bodies.  Over time we learn to understand in any moment whether we need more nurturing or whether it’s safe enough to investigate some more.  We can investigate to the edge of our comfort zones  and then drop back into safe nurturing if needed.  

The key point here, however, is that when we choose to nurture instead of investigate, we are doing it with the belief that we will go back to investigating in the future once we are fully resourced.  We can always keep in mind the belief that we can handle whatever comes up in the body.  We are just choosing to wait a little bit to feel safer before turning towards the body sensations.  

One of the fears that I have seen come up in therapy and have heard stories about is that turning towards the difficult sensations of anxiety and investigating them will retrigger anxiety and cause people to panic.  When I was struggling with acute panic, this actually was my reality when I first started to turn towards the panic and feel into it.  I didn’t feel safe enough and I actually triggered more panic when I turned towards it.  The advice I got was that  it wasn’t safe and that it was unwise to turn towards the panic.   

Since I believe healing only happens when we turn towards the difficult, this was not the most helpful advice in the long term.  It actually sent me the message that it not only wasn’t necessary to turn towards the panic eventually, but it also implied that I couldn’t handle it.  In hindsight, I am realizing that the reason I retriggered my panic when turning towards it wasn’t that I ultamitlely couldn’t handle being with it.  It was simply because I was not fully resourced enough.  I just didn’t feel safe.  All I really needed to do was build up the safety and then I could turn towards the panic and start healing.  When I finally decided to take building up safety as the short term goal, I also simultaneously maintained the goal of revisiting investigating the panic in the future.  The nurturing wasn’t a turning away from the panic.  It was a skillful choice to get the nurturing I needed before investigation.  

From these experiences I learned that the most important thing is we need to believe it’s possible to turn towards.  It could be that we need to build up safety first, but the goal is always to have the idea of turning towards the difficult in our minds.  It’s not something optional.  We need to believe that we can cultivate the inner strength to be with what’s happening in our internal experience.  We can choose to build up safety first while maintaining the goal that we are doing so in order that when the right time comes we can move into investigation.

Here are some of the things I have noticed that offer people the safety during difficult times that is often a prerequisite for investigation:

  1.  One thing that I found immensely helpful for building safety is an understanding of how the mind works and the habit loop model.  This is an understanding that anxiety is not some mystery, but instead it’s something that anyone can learn to ride out.  There is not something inherently wrong and unchangeable about your brain.  The habit loop model from Dr. Jud Brewer that I discuss on this blog offers the safety of understanding of what anxiety actually is and how we feed it.  With this understanding anxiety and panic sensations become a lot less scary because we understand what they are and why the sensations get stronger when we feed them and weaker when we apply mindfulness.  

An understanding of this model takes so much of the fear of anxiety away.  Just mapping out a few panic habit loops gave me an understanding of what was actually going on in my mind and body.  For example, in the past when I turned towards the panic and was retriggered with more panic, I had no idea what was going on.  I was terrified.  If I had used the habit loop model to map out what was happening I would have identified the trigger of feeling the panic and triggering more panic, the behavior of mentally thinking “I can’t handle this..oh no”, and the reward of momentarily feeling in control and distracting myself from the panic.  With an understanding of the habit loop model I could see that resistance to the panic was triggering more panic and that this thinking was perpetuating a neverending panic habit loop.  Just this understanding offers an immense amount of safety.   

  1. Another really important component of cultivating safety is having guides and coaches telling us it’s safe and ok to turn towards the sensations in our body.  We can gain an incredible amount of safety by being guided by someone with confidence who has turned towards their own sensations and helped others do the same. This can give us the courage that we will be ok and that we can handle whatever comes up.  This external validation is massive.  These guides often offer community as well as their own expertise and support to help people to feel safe in their own bodies.  There is a trust there that is unshakable and plays a massive role in someone feeling they can handle turning towards difficult sensations.
    1. Alternatively, the message that turning towards anxiety may never be safe actually brings on the panic.   It keeps us afraid, and if we don’t turn towards anxiety we can never heal.  We must develop the courage to turn towards.  If the therapist or coach themselves is a bit cautious, how is the person they are trying to help going to feel the confidence to turn towards and learn about safety from their own experience?
    2. I was inspired greatly by people who were wholeheartedly sending the message of safety.  This message of safety is really about “I believe you can handle whatever comes up”.   Dr. Jud Brewer, Tibetan monk Mingyur Rinpoche, and holistic psychiatrist Kelly Brogan are a few of the people whose work has helped me to trust myself and my own abilities to turn towards the difficult.  Their inspiration helped me believe that it was truly possible to ride out any anxiety sensations, no matter how strong they are.  At the end of the day, anxiety still simply thoughts, body sensations, and emotions.  
    3. None of this is saying that we always turn towards anxiety or that we don’t need to learn to titrate between investigating and nurturing.  Also, sometimes it’s important to just take a break.  However, this ability to discern what we need in any given moment is something we must learn from our own experience. Guides and coaches can help us to trust our ability to explore our own experiences.  These inspiring people offer their own stories and stories about normal people with no meditation experience who rode out panic attacks and learned to hold and befriend really difficult feelings like depression and anxiety.  They talk about it being a hard process, yet they speak of this resilience that they trust in the human spirit.  These stories are incredibly motivating and have helped me build up trust in my own abilities and inner strength.

There is no question in my mind that we all have the ability to ride out anxiety sensations.  Often, however, we just need someone to tell us we have more sources of power and courage than we have been led to believe by our own minds (or outside influences).  We often develop the courage to do things based on what we believe is possible.  If we have people sending us the message that more and more is possible and we are stronger and braver than we ever thought possible, then we are going to act accordingly.  We sometimes need people to guide us into trusting ourselves so that we can get the lived experience to start trusting ourselves without outside influence.  Guides and coaches can offer us new beliefs so that when we feel safe and nurtured enough we can turn towards anxiety and be with it with newfound courage and strength.  

  1. I have also found great safety in the life story of the Buddha.  Even before his awakening he would suffer from bouts of intense fear and anxiety.  He would choose to actually bring on the fear so that he could investigate it.  Terrified, he would go and sit in the forest and feel the fear in his body and just sit there unmoving until the fear habit loops unwound themselves.  This is showing that fear and anxiety are part of the human condition.  Even the Buddha had to do the hard work.  He felt lots of fear too.  I find his story to be inspiring because his story is all of our stories.  We all have this ability to turn towards and sit with whatever is there in our internal experiences.  Sometimes we just need a little bit of safe resourcing first.  The Buddha had been building up that stability and safety over a long time.  We can build up that requisite safety as well.  
  2. Another really important aid in cultivating safety is practicing the N of RAIN.  This may actually be the most important component of all.  Here, we actually commit to the formal and informal practices of offering ourselves compassionate care.  As we develop the courage to turn towards anxiety we learn for ourselves when we need investigation and when we need nurturing.  We can then move back and forth between the two but from a place where we are not scared.  We know that when we need safety we can practice the N of RAIN and nurture ourselves before we return to investigation again.  This pacing is only something that we can learn from our own lived experience.  Practicing self compassion and the N of RAIN helps us to build up these inner resources that we can call upon at any moment to feel a sense of safety and belonging.  
  3. The nurturing and safety of compassion practices are really supported by relational compassion practices.  As Tibetan Buddhist teacher John Makransky talks about, all of these nurturing practices in the various religions came from a relational starting point. Practitioners learned to offer themselves love and care only after they learned about these emotions from others who modeled offering them the same love and care.  

I have found that offering myself compassion is really helpful, but when things get really difficult it’s often not enough.  In those cases I need a relational compassion practice where I am imaging other loving beings supporting me.  This is either through caring moments or benefactors.  I have found tremendous help in cultivating a team of benefactors like Buddha, Jesus, my dog, trees, etc who offer me phrases of safety and care in my own mind when things get difficult.  This relational compassion practice has a different flavor than me just saying “hey buddy you’re safe” to myself.  

Informal practice is super important here, but these practices also need to be supported by formal compassion practice when things are not really difficult so we can spend time getting to know and trust our benefactors.  The benefactors can be any people or moments that elicit feelings of care and warmth for you.  It’s important to find phrases, beings, and images you can call upon in difficult times.  We are social beings and the safety of a secure relational base can greatly aid us in turning towards our inner experiences. 

After finding some safety from nurturing ourselves we may be ready to turn towards anxiety again.  What I have found from my own experience and Dr. Jud Brewer’s research is that it’s really the informal RAIN practice and informal mindfulness practices that are most helpful in changing long standing habits like anxiety.  This is different from formal meditation.  Instead of waiting to practice when we have time to meditate, we actually choose to investigate the difficult sensations of anxiety IN THE MOMENT when they arise.  By doing this we are showing the anxiety that we are not afraid and that we want to make friends with it.  Alternatively, only practicing in formal meditation is like telling a friend who is visiting us to wait a few hours before we are ready to see them.  It doesn’t really work.  

What I noticed in my own life is that it was only when I decided to sit with the panic every time it came up that my life changed in three days more than in the previous 2 years.  It was only in the informal practices that I could build up the courage to show the panic that I wanted to befriend it.  In the past, when I was only practicing with the formal meditation practices, I was encouraging a subtle avoidance.  The informal practices are where habit loops are truly transformed, and the formal practices can support this process.  

This was a huge shift in understanding for me because I always assumed that the formal practices were more valuable.  However, I now believe that sitting in meditation for 30 minutes a day and then going out and mindlessly perpetuating anxiety habit loops the rest of the day isn’t really doing very much.  It’s the same thing with doing a few big OCD exposures and then doing mini compulsions the rest of the day.  That’s not how the brain works.  Formal practice needs to support the informal moment to moment practice.  The informal moment to moment practice is where we are really training our brains how to act in the future.  It’s the little moment to moment actions of moving towards and feeling the unpleasant that actually support the ground for the big changes.

Over time we can develop the wisdom to discern when to turn towards anxiety in the moment and when to seek out safety and care.  Underlying this process of titration we can cultivate the belief that we can handle whatever comes up in the body and mind.  Whatever it is, we will be able to handle it.  In this article I offered some ideas and suggestions on what I believe offers one the safety and courage to turn towards the difficult and heal from anxiety.  When we feel sufficiently resourced to investigate, it’s important to investigate informally in the moment instead of waiting to do it in formal meditation.  

Do any of these nurturing practices resonate with you?  If there is one lesson I can take from all of this in my own life, it’s that I think I was a lot stronger than I had been led to believe by myself and others.  We are so much more resilient than we think and sometimes it just takes practices or people that point us in the direction of that resilience to truly believe in ourselves.  Once we get that courage built up we can start to get more and more of our strength and safety internally.  As we build up this internal courage and care, we can feel safe enough to offer that solid foundation of stability to support others on their own journeys into feeling.

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