Accepting My Anxiety, Breath by Breath

It sounds so simple, but truly coming to terms with your condition is anything but. Eddie McNamara shares the methods that have helped him most.

by Eddie McNamara Health Writer

I figure if you’re reading this column, you’re like me—forever looking for ways to lessen the symptoms of anxiety and panic. Considering how many deep breaths I’ve taken over the years, my lungs must be strong AF. I should be in the Guinness Book of World Records for deepest breather. I can tell you that strategies like mindful breathing have reduced the severity of my dizziness, pounding heart, and feeling like I just stepped off a cliff. However, they didn’t do much to fix the root of my anxiety. And I’ll bet that the same is true for you.

You can deep-breathe your way out of a panic attack, but then what? Sure, the symptoms are gone (for the moment) but your anxiety disorder is unchanged. If your symptoms are going to come back, you might as well change your relationship with them.

What would happen if instead of trying to fix or fight your anxiety, you just accepted it? That’s the idea behind Radical Acceptance, a book by Tara Brach, Ph.D, a psychologist and meditation teacher. She actually suggests welcoming difficult, frightening, even painful thoughts and emotions instead of suppressing them. This might sound like the exact opposite thing you’d want to do as someone dealing with anxiety but letting yourself fully feel all those uncomfortable sensations can help you prove something to yourself—that you can tolerate more than you thought. You got this.

When you experience thoughts and feelings without judgement, you’ll see that they eventually pass. Judgement is no friend to the anxious. It leads to negative self-talk (“What’s wrong with me?”) and fear (“Oh crap, my heart is pounding. I’m going to have a panic attack!”), and you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life. Panic attacks just hang around for a few (horrible) minutes, but then they’re over. Accept anxious feelings without attaching a story to them. Feel your crazy-fast heartbeat but do so without attaching a narrative that ends with you on a gurney. It’s just a beating heart.

Acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean being passive, either. Anxiety coach Barry McDonagh uses the radical acceptance concept with a confrontational twist in Dare: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks Fast. He thinks the best way to control anxiety and panic attacks is to resist the urge to control your symptoms. His four-step D.A.R.E. program focuses on actively engaging with your anxiety. Here’s the gist:

Defuse: We panicky types are prone to worst-case scenario thinking when we feel an attack coming on. The more we think about it, the more we spiral into a tornado of fear. For example, I’m often afraid of passing out during a panic attack. Logically, I know it’s unlikely, but it FEELS like it’s about to happen. McDonagh suggests confronting these fears by saying, So what? So what if I pass out? Well, people are either going to walk right past my body without reacting (I live in NYC), or they’re going to be solid citizens and try to help. Either way, I’ll be fine. A therapist at Bellevue Hospital leading a group for first responders once told me, “Even if you do pass out, it’s not like you’ll be the only one lying on the ground in this neighborhood.” Harsh, but true.

Allow: Here comes the radical acceptance. McDonagh wants you to tell yourself, “I accept and allow this anxious feeling.” Remember, it’s just an anxious feeling. It’s going to pass as long as you accept it for what it is and don’t give in to the urge to resist it. You don’t have to like it. You just have let it happen. The Buddha, Tara Brach, and McDonagh all seem to agree that if you invite your anxiety in for a cup of tea, it’ll eventually leave.

Run Toward: This one’s scary. Get aggressive, and tell your feelings of anxiety, “Bring it on. That’s all you got?!” It requires a leap of faith to even attempt, but it really makes me feel like I’m being active and taking recovery into my own hands. There’s a method to McDonagh’s madness here. By challenging the anxiety, we’re reframing our relationship with it. To get the brain used this shifting power dynamic, he suggests telling yourself you’re excited by the feeling (even if you’re not). The idea is that, with practice, your automatic feelings of fear will be replaced with something like nervous excitement. That’s a trade I’ll take any day.

Engage: Focus your mind on something else. Read about finance, write in a journal, practice scales on your upright bass. Even if you’re still experiencing leftover anxiety, stay totally present with your activity. When your mind is fully occupied, there’s no room for anxious thoughts.

I’m far from cured, and I don’t know if I ever will be, but these seemingly counterintuitive ways to deal with anxiety and panic have helped me in the throes of a shitstorm. Recently, I caught myself trying to fully feel my rapidly beating heart…and then daring it to beat even harder, because that’s all it was, a heartbeat. And so what if my heart was beating a little fast? It might mean I’m on my way to a panic attack…or it might not. Either way, I’ll be ok. And that’s good enough for me.

Eddie McNamara
Meet Our Writer
Eddie McNamara

Eddie McNamara is a 9/11 first-responder and former cop turned vegetarian chef and author. He's been living with panic disorder and PTSD for 17 years, and he'll be sharing his experiences, thoughts, and seriously hard-won advice every month. Check out all his columns for "Panic in the Streets."