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Cultivating Anxiety Tolerance

June 21, 2020 George Abitante

I've been thinking a lot the past few weeks about how to cultivate anxiety tolerance. With the beginning of my Ph.D. program on the horizon, I've been grappling with questions about how I'll handle a range of situations. I am worried about moving, succeeding in the program, making friends, and a random assortment of other questions that seem to pop up unasked throughout the day.

There are many sources of uncertainty in our lives, and developing anxiety tolerance to cope with this uncertainty is an important part of adult life. In the past few months, I've written a lot about specific behaviors you can use to reduce anxiety in a variety of situations, but today I want to talk more about something a little more abstract.

While it is important to have and use strategies to reduce anxiety, it's equally important to cultivate an attitude that allows you to cope with anxiety effectively. Today we will focus on increasing anxiety tolerance, rather than decreasing anxiety, as a means of improving our ability to face anxiety-provoking situations with confidence and strength. 

Cultivation Anxiety Tolerance with Inner Strength

I believe that most people tend to underestimate how well they can handle challenging situations. In my own experience, and in watching others, the things we've been anticipating fearfully for weeks or months rarely end up being as frightening or debilitating as we made them out to be. But it's difficult to translate this awareness into a reduction in anxiety.

Instead, even when we recognize we've coped with similar situations in the past, we still feel considerable anxiety the next time we face a new potential threat. Because of this, sometimes we benefit more by improving our tolerance for anxiety instead of trying to reduce the amount of anxiety we experience.

Often, anxiety tolerance precedes reductions in anxiety. This may be part of the process of exposure therapy -- initially, your anxiety levels don't change much when you encounter the feared situation, but your tolerance for that anxiety quickly does. In other words, your ability to engage with situations that produce anxiety increases, and as you encounter those situations more frequently, your anxiety eventually decreases as well. So, how do we build that anxiety tolerance in the first place? Below, I share three tips you can use to cultivate tolerance for anxiety in your own life.

3 Ways to Cultivate Anxiety Tolerance

  1. Stay open to anxiety-provoking experiences. I often find that I become the most anxious and struggle most when I work really hard to avoid something and buy into the idea that its occurrence is the worst-case scenario. By staying open to feeling anxious, it becomes easier to handle periods of high anxiety. Often I find my own resistance to accepting anxiety leads to the biggest increases in it, whereas when I simply accept it and don't let it stick to me, I'm much better at resolving it quickly and easily. This gets easier as you practice openness more frequently. 
  2. Challenge worst-case scenarios. The most challenging situations for me are ones where I can vividly imagine a scenario that seems absolutely horrible. These are the most fear-provoking and the hardest to stay open to. One technique I find helpful is to challenge the likelihood of those scenarios by considering the actual probability of it happening. Once that is taken into account, it can be easier to reframe and acknowledge that this anxiety is actually bearable since the event it pertains to isn't very likely.
  3. Sit through it. This is the hardest strategy to actually do, but it can be invaluable to avoid distractions when you're struggling with anxiety. Our tendency is to escape from anxious feelings and thoughts in some way, but when you sit with them, you realize eventually that they will pass of their own accord if you simply wait. This realization can be really helpful when your anxiety is high because often the greatest fear you might experience is that your anxiety will stay with you forever. Sitting with your anxiety is a great way to counter this fear because it demonstrates to you that even if you don't take any action, the feeling of anxiety will leave you of its own accord.

I hope these strategies will help you increase your tolerance for anxiety. Thanks for reading, and please share any tips and tricks you have below.

APA Reference
Abitante, G. (2020, June 21). Cultivating Anxiety Tolerance, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, November 30 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/treatinganxiety/2020/6/cultivating-anxiety-tolerance



Author: George Abitante

George received his Master's degree in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University and is pursuing his PhD in Clinical Psychology at Vanderbilt University. Find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @AbitanteGeorge.

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