Sitting With Discomfort... And Why It's Important

Learning to ‘sit with your discomfort’ sounds like real therapy-speak… But there is a value to it.

Sitting with your discomfort is simply allowing yourself to be comfortable with discomfort, to sit through difficult feelings sometimes without feeling the need to rail against them.

Think about the following scenario. You come in from work, you’ve had a difficult day and feel quite stressed, so reach for a glass of wine to calm yourself down and relax. In effect, the glass of wine acts as a form of distraction from the bad day and probably works in the short term.

We use these distractions every day – from comfort eating after a row with a partner or friend to throwing ourselves into work to avoid thinking about a bereavement to, in the extreme, self-harming to mask difficult emotions and feelings. The key word here is ‘avoid’ because in constantly providing distractions for ourselves, we neatly sidestep having to actually engage with those feelings. Of course, those feelings don’t actually go away so we have to keep on managing them in the same way.

Think about the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. They can be unpleasant – racing heart, palpitations, a feeling of fear, even terror. Anxiety warns us of danger and if we are faced with a wild animal or a speeding car then fear is a reasonable reaction and we actually are in danger. But think about the last time you felt anxiety – were you actually in danger then? I wonder what would happen if, instead of distracting yourself or trying to resist these feelings, you simply acknowledged them and sat with them. Would anything dangerous actually happen? Or would they eventually pass?

Noticing how we feel and accepting it, irrespective of whether it’s a positive or negative experience, is a mindfulness practice and there is brain activity associated with that which actually helps to make sense of it. For example, when we engage with this type of practice, there is increased activation in a region of our brain located behind the frontal lobe, called the anterior cingulate cortex. This area of our brain is involved in the planning and suppressing of impulsive reactions, which in turn enables us to make more effective decisions in challenging circumstances. Sitting with uncomfortable feelings rather than reacting immediately or distracting, means that you can start to relate to those feelings differently … and allowing yourself to experience them also allows you to actually see that they are not dangerous feelings as such, they won’t hurt you and ultimately, they will pass.

Perhaps one of our issues is the sense that we ‘should’ be happy all of the time. Forget the shoulds’ – life doesn’t work on ‘shoulds’. It’s ok to feel down some of the time, it’s ok to be angry, it’s ok to feel anxious. Try to get into the habit of observing your emotions without judgement. Perhaps you are upset that you have been let down by a friend or partner. Acknowledge your emotions – how do you really feel? We tend to talk ourselves out of difficult emotions but try to get into the habit of acceptance instead – almost letting yourself feel those negative emotions without excuses or judgements. Will they last forever if we just sit with them for a while? Of course not. Will they cause us any harm if we let them play out without distraction? No, because feelings themselves are not harmful.

Sitting with our emotions is challenging at first. But it’s a skill that you can learn with practice and it can be much less tiring than constantly trying to practice avoidance.