Worry and anxiety affect all of us, especially during times of pressure. It’s one of the most common mental health issues worldwide. In fact globally, between 6-18% people of people experience anxiety. So, know you’re not alone.
Anxiety makes people feel nervous, tense and overwhelmed. It evokes emotions such as worry, agitation and distress. It’s felt in the mind as well as the body, inducing physical sensations such as sweating, dizziness, and muscle tension. Some people experience body pain, a racing heart or sleep disturbances. It manifests in many ways.
Anxiety is caused by our biology and genetic predisposition, as well as our views, coping mechanisms, and stress. It’s often a response to future concerns, but people don’t actually need to have awareness of an exact cause to experience it – the mind can become anxious even without an identifiable fear.
Fortunately, mindfulness and meditation practices are extremely effective in alleviating anxiety.
Today we're exploring 5 mindfulness practices for getting present, and learning how to respond to anxiety in a healthier way.
We’ll learn ways to soften our reactivity, and practice techniques like noting and pausing.
Connecting with the breath.
Focusing the mind on the breath or the body helps connect us to the present moment. This is useful in times of anxiety because when we’re focused on the here and now, we aren’t fixating on the past or future concerns. Focusing on the present moment offers our minds a break from being preoccupied and reacting to the content of our thoughts. It also gives us a chance to step back from the spiral of worry to observe what’s happening with a calmer mind.
When we focus our attention on the breath or the body, we offer our minds a chance to slow down, and gain perspective.
Mindfulness helps create space so we’re able to be less reactive to the content of our thoughts. That’s part of why it’s so useful in alleviating anxiety.
To begin, simply follow the movement of each breath as it draws in and out.
Observing each inhale and each exhale, as it connects you to this very moment.
Focus on any sensations that may arise and use the breath to connect you to the present moment.
And then just being open to everything in your present experience.
Observing the weight of your body.
The temperature of the room.
Any sounds around you.
Connect to everything in this very moment.
And now, notice how it feels to rest your mind in present moment awareness.
Mind and Body Connection.
Most of us are well aware of the mind and body connection, but it’s rarely as profound as when we experience anxiety and fear. When we’re gripped by a fearful thought, it activates the sympathetic nervous system. This sends a signal that a threat is present and this fight or flight reaction releases hormones and chemicals. Suddenly, we’re flooded by anxious thoughts, strong emotions and uncomfortable physical sensations. It’s enough to make us feel we’ve lost control.
Thankfully, through mindfulness we can tune into the mind-body connection and interrupt the vicious cycle of anxiety. As soon as we notice we’re caught in it, we can stop, close our eyes, take a few deep breaths, and tune into the body.
Dropping into the breath and the body grounds us in the present moment. Here, we’re better able to observe our emotions and thoughts and we can see how they manifest in the body as physical sensations.
That tension in your back? That knot in your belly? Sweating or heart palpitations?
Tuning into how anxiety manifests as physical sensation helps us become more aware of the interconnectedness of our being, and offers us a direct way to work with anxiety.
Thoughts and non-reactivity.
It’s easy for us jump to conclusions, foreseeing the worst, and predicting all kinds of catastrophe’s that haven’t happened and likely never will. The reason we do this is because we view predicting things as a way of controlling the unknown, which of course, is impossible to do.
Even though our worst fears rarely actualize, we still play out scenarios in our mind and believe our thoughts. We imagine embarrassments, rejections and failures and these thoughts send us into a tailspin of anxiety.
But if we were able to put a pause on these projections, stop and observe our thoughts, identifying them as just that – thoughts and nothing else, they lose their power.
Picture yourself lying on the grass, watching the clouds above. You calmly observe the many shapes and sizes. Watching them pass by freely.
That’s how we want to observe our thoughts – letting them come and go freely. We want to observe them with acceptance and objectivity rather than with our usual automatic knee-jerk reactions.
Each time you notice your mind has wandered, bring it back in a gentle, patient way.
Whether you have a happy thought or an anxious thought treat it the same way. Don’t get caught up in the emotion beneath the thought. Simply observe it arise and release it. Let it pass like a cloud crossing the sky.
Then gently bring your attention back to home base – the breath.
Breath, after breath, after breath.
As we cultivate moment-to-moment awareness we begin to notice how our anxiety is connected to our thoughts. When we learn to observe them as just that – thoughts - not reality, they’re less likely to pull us into an anxious tailspin. Each thought is just a story we’re telling ourselves and mostly likely, not as catastrophic as we believe.
By learning to let thoughts arise, and acknowledge them without reactivity, we interrupt the flow of anxiety, which thrives on negative projections of the future. Meditation helps us develop this ability.
As you have already noticed, it’s extremely difficult not to get carried away by our thoughts. Our tendency is to believe them regardless of how exaggerated or unlikely they are. So we pay to attention them. This is our habit.
Mindfulness however, grounds us so we’re able to witness our anxious thoughts for what they are: speculations about the future.
Changing how we react to our thoughts doesn’t come easily. We have to repeatedly practice observing our ongoing stream of thoughts without getting pulled in by their seemingly magnetic force. They’re just thoughts – so we don’t identify with them. If we have a nervous thought, we note there’s nervousness, and then we let it go. If we have a sad thought, we note there’s sadness, and then we let it go.
We can use this technique of noting to strengthen the habit of non-reactivity.
To begin the practice of noting, each time you’re draw to a thought, mentally note it. If there’s sadness, note the word sadness. If there is fear note the word fear. Or if you prefer you can observe what the mind is doing. You can note planning, ruminating, speculating.
By doing this, you’re creating room for your thoughts, inviting them into the space. Rather than rather than running from your thoughts or pushing or pulling, you instead form a new relationship with them. One where you can be present with your thoughts without getting lost in them or paralyzed by them.
Whether our emotions are comfortable or uncomfortable we treat then all the same. Accepting and allowing all that arises.
Throughout the day feel free to continue the practice of noting. If you notice anxious thoughts arising, stop for a moment, close your eyes and note them. Be present for each thought without taking it too seriously. Watch thoughts come and watch them go like passing clouds in the sky. The more you note your thoughts and emotions without identifying with them, the more they’ll begin to flow through you.
You’ll begin to recognize thoughts as thoughts and not necessarily future predictions. You’ll recognize emotions as emotions without judgment. This is when anxiety begins to dissolve.
Pausing is one of the most effective ways of working with anxiety. We pause all the time in life. Between sentences, at stop lights, in conversations… But when it comes to stress and anxiety, pausing is extremely difficult. When emotion rushes through us, it can be all encompassing. Our instinct is to panic, run, or push it away. Each time we do this though we’re conditioning our response system. The more strongly we react to anxiety, the more of a hold it has on us. Our reactiveness can also color, exaggerate and distort our thoughts and experiences, feeding into this cycle.
Although we can’t control our emotions, practicing mindfulness helps us respond to them in a calmer, healthier way. It also allows us to re-condition our tendencies.
The key to this pausing practice is in noticing the gap as anxiety arises. What I’m referring to is that tiny window between the time anxiety starts and the time we react to it. If we can pause for even the slightest second before anxiety sweeps us away, we’re able to be more mindful about our response to it. Most of the time this gap is unrecognizable because we react to anxiety so swiftly, so like anything else, pausing takes practice.
Each time a thought or emotion rises, see if it’s possible to pause for just a second to observe your experience.
Observe the thought or emotion without pursuing it, or rejecting it.
Just note it. Without creating a story. Without any judgment.
Then, after the pause, bring your awareness back to the breath.
You can try this pausing practice the next time anxiety arises. As soon as it hits, stop and create some space by taking a few deep breaths. This way, instead of getting swept away by anxiety, pausing to breathe allows you to observe what’s happening in your mind and body.
And in that space you can question your thoughts more objectively, asking yourself are these thoughts 100% true? Might I be exaggerating, projecting or jumping to conclusions?
By pausing, we’re able to view our thoughts and emotions with perspective and clarity, which helps to de-escalate our anxiety.
It’s likely you’ll feel drawn to practice different techniques at different times to root and soothe you, so feel free to choose the practice that feels right for you.
Our 7 Days of Calming Anxiety program explores these strategies, along with guided practices on succesfully integrating them in daily life.