Have you ever felt an overwhelming sense of fear flood your body, like there is a wave of panic pulsing through your every limb? Your mind becomes foggy and all of a sudden your palms are sweaty, your fingers and toes are vibrating and you feel completely out of control. You have entered fight-or-flight mode in an instant.

For every individual there may be a different scenario that triggers this experience. Some feel it when flying on a plane during a patch of turbulence. Others may feel it going back to the doctor’s office where they heard bad news. The trigger can look different for everyone and can include a person, place or thing. Whatever the cause, experiencing overwhelming feelings that flood your system can be confusing and scary.

When your nervous system goes into overdrive it is harder to locate strategies to help you calm down and cope. Instead, your body tenses up and attempts to resist. You begin to worry and are hyper focused on these sensations. The more we fight these scary or uncomfortable sensations, the more adrenaline and cortisol releases into your system. The increase in adrenaline and cortisol then works to intensify the sensations and makes them last even longer.

If this experience has ever happened to you, the place or trigger that caused this now becomes something you may attempt to avoid. However, instead of avoiding the feeling, trigger or place, leaning into the experience will allow your overwhelming feelings to move through you and dissipate.

Why is avoidance harmful?

It is natural to want to avoid uncomfortable feelings, sensations and triggers. However, if you give into avoidance it reinforces the idea that the feeling, sensation or trigger is dangerous and perpetuates the discomfort when you come in contact with them again.

Many triggers and uncomfortable feelings are things we cannot all together avoid. If we try, these avoidant behaviors tend to negatively impact our lives, relationships and capacity to cope in everyday life. Therefore, it is imperative that we understand ways to help us get through triggering moments or discomfort in order to live our lives to the fullest.

Lean In Technique

In this exercise you will be using distress tolerance techniques and getting comfortable with feeling uncomfortable through acceptance and leaning in.

You can use this technique in the moment when you notice a flooding feeling or sensation or for the purpose of this exercise: close your eyes and imagine a trigger (place, person sensation). Let your emotions flood your body for a moment, let your heart rate increase, you may notice your temperature rising, and tingling sensations in your hands and feet.

Now, open your palms and choose to accept the experience. If you are comfortable, you can say aloud “bring it on!”. You can also choose to repeat this in your head. Ask to feel this feeling more, for example “bring on more of this anxiety”, “I can take on more!”. Ask to feel the sensation and/or feeling 10 times more and say “ I can handle this, bring on 10 times this feeling!”.
Acknowledge that you have the strength to take on this challenge. You have gotten through difficult times in the past and you can get through this. Repeat this and commit to accepting the discomfort.

When you notice your impulse to resist, fight or tense up around the feelings, choose to accept the sensations. Once you allow these sensations in, you will no longer release more adrenaline and cortisol. Eventually, your body will regulate itself once again.
You may think this is counterintuitive. However, by leaning in you harness your power and control. You acknowledge that these sensations and feelings are not harmful or reason to panic.

Continue engaging in this practice and you will see that your flooded emotions around the trigger will begin to diminish. If you continually use this technique, you will become an expert at addressing your overwhelming feelings and sensations.

Jennifer Mann
Jennifer MannClinical Social Worker
I work with patients experiencing difficulties related to anxiety, depression, relational issues, body image, self-esteem, women’s health concerns, and life transitions.