“Lean into the discomfort of the work.” ~ Brené Brown

Anxiety was the core of my existence for decades.

When I look back at my life over that time, what comes to mind first is the constant tension in my chest, a knotted stomach, and a lump in my throat.

From the outside, my life looked great. I was college-educated, had a good job, was in a relationship; I lived in a nice place, had a decent car, and enough money to buy organic food and a gym membership.

But I was miserable.

Not only was I anxious all the time, worrying that people would judge me, I felt like I couldn’t feel happiness.

Even when the situation around me was a happy one—a surprise birthday party for me, getting gifts on Christmas, a lazy Sunday morning with nothing to do but enjoy a nice cup of coffee, or a hilarious scene in a comedy movie—true happiness never seemed to surface.

Those were all my favorite things, but I couldn’t feel the happiness in my chest and my gut. I felt like I could only intellectualize happiness.

All I really felt was discomfort, and not just because of my anxiety but because I was constantly resisting it. I refused to accept sadness and fear as perfectly normal emotions. I thought I shouldn’t feel them, so whenever I felt that familiar tension in my mind and body, I shut down, trying to block out all the negatives.

My Resistance to the Discomfort of Anxiety Blocked Me from True Happiness

We can’t turn off one emotion without blocking the others. It took me a long time to learn this. In my journey to learn how to stop worrying about what other people thought of me, practicing meditation to calm my body and strengthen my mind, or learning how to deal with heartache in a healthy way, I began to lean into the discomfort.

By that I mean I gave the tension and discomfort permission to be there. It’s like the difference between trying to pull your fingers out of a Chinese finger trap as opposed to pushing your fingers together to loosen the grip of the trap so you can eventually wiggle your fingers out.

Years of anxiety left me feeling numb. I thought I would never truly feel happy. That was for lucky people. Or people were just lying about how happy they were.

But as I progressed along my journey, leaning into the discomfort allowed it to flow through me instead of staying stuck.

I leaned into the discomfort physically, mentally, and emotionally. I would sit there and breathe slowly, relax the tension and resistance in my body, and allow the discomfort to be there. I would think, “Okay, this sadness is uncomfortable. I feel it in my stomach and my chest. I give you permission to be here while you work through me.”

And I would sit and watch the emotion instead of fighting it. It brought the wall down. I would feel the intensity lessen as I was compassionate toward it and to myself. I felt it shift. Sometimes it went away completely. It made me feel more in control. Which is a funny irony, gaining control by letting go.

Our Emotions Can Become Stuck in our Bodies

When our stress response is triggered, it sends cortisol and adrenaline through our veins to give us the energy and motivation to fight or flea. Once the danger has passed, if there is extra adrenaline in the body, we mammals naturally shake it off to burn the rest of it.

For example, if you almost get in a car accident, you might notice your body shaking after. Or maybe you laugh out loud (even though it’s not ha-ha funny). These are ways we naturally “finish” our stress response.

But us smarty-pants humans often stop this process from finishing. We get stressed at work and hold in our emotions so we don’t look weak. We experience a loss, so we hold in laughter because “it’s inappropriate” to feel happy right now. We feel sad or afraid and we stuff it down to ignore it.

All this ends up leaving us disconnected from our full emotional experience. You can’t deny fear without also blocking joy. You can’t hide from sadness without also hiding from happiness.

Paradoxically, by leaning into the discomfort, without fear, without judgment, we get closer to happiness.

Without Anxiety, I Cry More

Today I no longer “suffer” from anxiety. Sure, I get anxious if I have something important coming up—that’s perfectly natural. But I accept that anxiety and let it move through me instead of fighting it and shutting down.

For the most part, I’m the chill person I’d always hoped I could become.

And the funny thing I’ve noticed lately is how much more I cry. Not tears of sadness, but of happiness, pride, appreciation, and gratitude.

I watch the news every day, and there’s almost always a feel-good story at the end. So nearly every day as I sit there sipping my coffee, I look forward to that energetic surge swelling up from my gut, through my chest, up my throat, and watering my eyes.

Watching a talent show like America’s Got Talent, I cry every time someone does a great job feeling incredibly proud of this stranger who I know nothing about.

I love feeling genuinely happy for others. It’s something I never fully appreciated before. I couldn’t embody the emotions even when I mentally knew “this is great.”

If you find yourself feeling numb to happiness, know that there is hope if you’re willing to start letting yourself feel the full range of emotions.

It may take some time, but don’t be afraid to lean into the uncomfortable feelings that arise. Anger, frustration, shame, envy—none of these feelings are “bad.” And they won’t consume you. You just have to open up, feel them, and let them naturally pass.

Relax your body, focus on your breath, and let the energy of the emotion work its way through. Know that this is only a moment that is uncomfortable. It isn’t causing you long-term harm, and it won’t damage your body (note, if you feel truly unsafe during a practice like this, it is better to do so under the supervision of a licensed mental health professional).

It’s like the story of the second arrow. A soldier got hit with an arrow and it hurt. Pain happens, right? When that soldier started shouting in anger, upset that this shouldn’t have happened, wailing over the unfairness of it all… he created suffering on top of the pain.

If you were watching this soldier, you would know that if he were to just sit, take some deep breaths, and relax his body, the pain would lessen. That resistance to the pain created more physical pain as his body tensed up, and mental pain as he fought the idea of what happened.

Here are a few resilience-building practices that can further teach you the art of letting go and leaning into discomfort:

  • Relax your body in cold water instead of tensing up
  • Resist quenching an urge like eating a cookie when you know you aren’t hungry or reaching for your phone when you feel bored
  • Mono-task instead of multi-task, especially when you feel worried about getting things done

And as you work through the emotions that arise in these scenarios, be sure to speak kindly to yourself.

On your journey through your anxiety, or whatever “negative” emotion you’re tempted to resist, know that you might come across some interesting things, like joy and crying, and it’s all so worth it.