Reducing Anxiety through Mindfulness
Our times can be characterized as the age of anxiety. We are fearful and anxious about the future. According to Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.” Generalized or chronic anxiety affects 6.8 million adults, and women are twice as likely to be affected as men. Panic anxiety, which is a period of intense fear and discomfort for no apparent reason, affects 6 million adults, and women are twice as likely as men to be affected. However, mindfulness meditation is a transformational learning tool that can help improve our mental health, especially in areas such as anxiety. Because mindfulness and meditation involve paying attention to the present moment in a nonjudgmental way, and anxiety involves imagining future pain, they can be considered an intervention for those suffering from anxiety.
Mindfulness meditation, as some of us know already, is rooted in Buddhism. But, some of us may not know that mindfulness meditation is also established in other religions and traditions such as Judaism, Islam and Native American as well as Western philosophical and psychological schools of thought. For the sake of simplicity, mindfulness can be described as the cultivation of self-awareness, like the warning that you might have gotten when you were younger to be mindful about what you were doing. If it was taking out the trash or washing the dishes, you might have been admonished, like I was, to watch what you were doing. But today, mindfulness and meditation are seen as means for fostering clear mindedness, emotional balance and loving-kindness. They are recognized scientifically as being physically and mentally beneficial. They are tools that have shown to help those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, psoriasis, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
A sign on the gym wall read “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Mindfulness meditation calls for an open mind and heart. It is not having a blank mind or emptying the mind. In addition, mindfulness meditation is not:
- Becoming emotionless
- Withdrawing from life
- Seeking bliss
- Escaping pain
- Converting to a new religion
Mindfulness meditation is observing—being a witness to your own thoughts and emotions including breath, sensation, a sound, a sight, or intention. “By doing this, mindfulness helps us gain insight into how our minds work, see how we generate distress, and find paths to well-being,” writes Ronald Siegel author of The Mindful Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems.
In being a witness, you learn that thoughts are just thoughts, and emotions are just emotions. In other words, your thoughts or emotions are not you. You are not your thoughts; you are not your emotions. As a meditator, you observe your anxious thoughts or feelings of anxiety simply as immaterial matter separate from yourself.
What you are not
When we identify with our thoughts or feelings of anxiety, we empower them. Maya McNeilly, PhD, in an article entitled “Responding Versus Reacting” from Duke Integrative medicine Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Foundation Course Manual, advises the meditator to “practice recognizing that the thoughts and feelings are just that – thoughts and feelings – and avoid over-identifying with them as the substance of you.” Instead, through mindfulness and meditation, we learn to relate to our thoughts or feelings of anxiety. We acknowledge their presence. For example, instead of saying “I am anxious,” a better way might be “I am having a lot of anxious thoughts.” Relating to thoughts or feelings of anxiety allows you to be a participant with your feelings rather than a victim.
Don’t avoid or deny
In mindfulness meditation, we don’t try to push away our experiences or thoughts. Instead we accept them because they are there already. In fact, they can be likened to storm clouds that are fleeting. But instead of seeing the storm clouds as oppressive burden, you can use your fear or anxiety as a form of personal growth. For example, in mindfulness meditation, you can use your anxiety as a motivator to know yourself: Ask yourself “What does this feeling want from me right now?” “What is it trying to tell me?”
Three processes involved in mindfulness meditation:
- Feel your anxiety as it shows up in your body.
- Observe your worried thoughts about the future.
- Note how you react. Do you smoke or drink, for example?
It is in being aware that you can begin to heal by adapting behavioral changes.
Be compassionate to thyself
When we begin to pay attention to our inner workings, we tend to meet the inner critic. The inner critic is judgmental. It’s the voice that tells us what we should do or should have done. It’s impatient with our present state—our shortcomings or imperfections, which by the way are what makes us human. This lack of patience adds to our suffering. Gunaratana, the author of Mindfulness in Plain English, explains that our job as meditators is to learn to be patient with ourselves, to see ourselves in an unbiased way, complete with all our sorrows and inadequacies.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, the individual credited for bringing mindfulness mainstream, describes this space and manner in which we might hold ourselves:
The mind won’t take easily to it, because the wounds we carry run deep. But you might try, just as an experiment, to hold yourself in awareness and acceptance for a time in your practice, as a mother would hold a hurt or frightened child, with a completely available and unconditional love (Wherever You Are There You Are).
Approaching ourselves with compassion is not an excuse to be lazy nor is it an act of pity. It’s allowing the space and the content of our minds to be transformed, nonthreateningly, by love.
Always remember, if emotions become too difficult to handle, do not hesitate to seek the help of a therapist.
If you are interested in attending a mindfulness workshop, click here.