Lately there’s been much talk about using the practice of mindfulness to relieve anxiety. If you struggle with anxiety, chances are you’ve tried a lot of different ways to cope. You might be wondering, does this mindfulness thing really work and what exactly do I have to do?
Let’s face it, anxiety is a normal part of life and we all experience feelings of anxiety at some point or another. How it usually plays out is that you find yourself faced with a stressful situation and your body’s immediate reaction is to go into fight or flight mode.
For instance, let’s say you have an evaluation coming up at work. Even though you know you’re a solid employee, the mere thought of the evaluation causes your chest to tighten, your heart starts pounding, the room begins to spin, your stomach does flip flops, and your brain is racing with thoughts of ‘what ifs’. What if I get a bad evaluation? What if I get fired? What if I can’t pay my rent?
The more caught up you get in your thoughts, the more your anxiety starts to spiral and the more intense the physical sensations become. Then your thoughts shift to, my heart feels like it’s about to explode, my chest hurts, and I feel like I can’t breathe. I hate feeling this way. This sucks.
So what do you do? Like many of us, you might try to escape this uncomfortable experience by trying to distract yourself. Maybe you turn on the TV to try and focus on something else. Some might go for a walk or decide to take a drink to alleviate the stress. Initially, trying to distract yourself might help. However, it won’t be long until your anxious thoughts and feelings creep back in.
If distraction doesn’t help ease your anxiety, then what else can you do?
Using Mindfulness to Relieve Anxiety
This is where practicing mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment and accepting it without judgment. Studies show that using mindfulness to relieve anxiety is an effective way to manage anxiety symptoms.
The research indicates that using mindfulness as a coping strategy helps you to focus on changing your relationship with anxiety. Therefore, instead of struggling to control or escape your symptoms, mindfulness helps you to accept your anxious thoughts and feelings and fully experience them when they’re triggered.
I know how counter-productive this sounds. Afterall, who wants to sit through their heart pounding, stomach doing flip flops, and shallow breathing all while their mind churns out thoughts of every worse case scenario possible?! Yeah, me neither.
However, the reality is, when you practice accepting your anxious experience instead of running away from it, your anxious thoughts and feelings begin to have less of an impact on you over time.
You begin to see that as uncomfortable as the physical sensations of anxiety are, they can’t hurt you. You see that as catastrophic as your thoughts are, most times they never materialize.
If you’re still with me, you’re probably wondering, how do I ‘accept’ my anxiety?The short answer is that you do it by becoming more aware or mindful of the bodily sensations that come up when your anxiety is triggered, and you allow yourself to fully experience these sensations. The complete opposite of withdrawing or distracting yourself.
For example, in our anxiety example, Instead of focusing on your thoughts about how much your anxiety sucks and how you don’t want to feel that way anymore, you bring your attention to your pounding heart, flip flopping stomach, and your shallow breathing.
You might say to yourself:
“I notice my breathing getting tense. I can feel the air going in and out of my nose. It feels warm against my nostrils. My chest is rising and falling really fast. My heart is pounding now and I feel butterflies in my stomach. I’m having the thought that I want this feeling to go away.“
Don’t judge your experience (i.e. it sucks to feel this way). You accept that in this moment you feel anxious and that you find it uncomfortable. Don’t try to fight it. Simply notice what’s going on in your mind and body and accept it for what it is:
“This feels uncomfortable, but I know that I’m OK. I’ve felt this way before and the feeling passed after awhile. I can handle this.”
Mindfulness Activities You Can Practice
In order to effectively use mindfulness to reduce anxiety, it’s important that you first learn how to be mindful. This way you’ll automatically know what do when you’re in an anxiety spiral without having to think about what steps to follow.
The following are some mindfulness activities that you can practice in order to build your mindfulness muscle when you’re in a state of calm:
Five Senses: 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique
For this exercise all you need to do is follow the order and notice something you are experiencing with each of the five senses.
1. Notice five things that you can see. Look around you and bring your attention to five things that you can see. Pick something that you don’t normally notice, like a pattern in a rug or the cracks on a side walk if you’re outside.
2. Notice four things that you can feel. Bring awareness to four things that you are currently feeling, like the tingling sensation in your hand, or how your shirt feels against your skin. Maybe you’re outdoors and can feel the wind in your hair.
3. Notice three things you can hear. Take a moment to listen and notice three things that you hear in the background. This can be a fan spinning overhead, cars going by, or birds chirping outside.
4. Notice two things you can smell. What are two things you can smell? Maybe it’s the smell of fresh laundry or an air freshener in the room. Or perhaps it’s the trash in the room. The smell doesn’t have to be a pleasant one!
5. Notice one thing you can taste. Focus on one thing that you can taste right now. You can eat a snack, take a sip of a drink, or suck/chew on a piece of candy. Pay attention to the taste it leaves in your mouth. You could even open your mouth and see how the air tastes.
Mindful Breathing for One Minute.
Close your eyes and bring attention to how your breath feels. You might notice the air going in and out of your nostrils or the rise and fall of your chest or stomach. If you can’t feel anything, place your hand on your stomach and notice how your hand gently rises and falls with your breath.
Focus on your breath. When your mind wanders, as it will most likely do, simply bring your attention back to your breath. When you notice your mind begin to wander, it might help to say to yourself ‘my brain is doing its job and pumping out thoughts’ as you gently bring your attention back to your breath.
Mindful Breathing Meditation (5 Minutes)
Take 5 Breathing Exercise
If you plan on using mindfulness to relieve anxiety, I recommend you try each of the mindfulness activity out and decide which one works for you. Once you do that, add it to your schedule and commit to practicing it daily.
Disclaimer: For those who have experienced trauma, using mindfulness to relieve anxiety might not be appropriate to do on your own. Some trauma survivors report that they find practicing mindfulness to be triggering. If your anxiety is trauma-related, it’s best that you work with a mental health professional to determine if practicing mindfulness is right for you.