How can we finally finish this anxiety marathon and enjoy the sweet success of our victory?
Mindfulness has been one of the most successful tools I have used to deal with anxiety in both my professional and personal experience. Mindfulness often gets confused with meditation. For me, there is a significant difference. Meditation is trying to relax by tuning everything out. Mindfulness is a stress-reduction practice that focuses on tuning in. Try asking an anxious person to breathe and tune out the ‘noise’ in their head. You may actually witness a scene similar to the one in the movie, The Exorcist, where Linda Blair's head spins around uncontrollably. Being an anxious person myself, I find it much more beneficial and productive trying to tune in to my experiences. It allows me to feel a sense of control. With mindfulness, I am actively aware of and choosing to connect to my thoughts and feelings. I am not just reacting to them any longer. Initially, this new way of being can be scary as I connect more to my thoughts and feelings. However, there is a sense of freedom and empowerment that comes from choosing rather than reacting to my thoughts and feelings.
Key Elements to Mindfulness
- Practice deep breathing.
- Allow for thoughts and feelings to surface.
- Do not judge these thoughts and feelings.
- Don’t try to change or analyze the experience.
- Allow the thoughts to drift in and out.
- Bring attention back to your breath in between thoughts.
- Tune into what you feel, hear, smell, and see.
Sounds simple, right? It’s one of those simple concepts yet the implementation is much more challenging. You will be more successful setting a small goal each day to begin your practice. I encourage people to start with 5 minutes once or twice a day. You can increase this as you develop your practice. The most common response I hear from clients practicing this tool is, “I am not doing it right. I can’t stop my thoughts. I am too distracted.” My response?.... “Awesome! It’s working.” You are not trying to STOP your thoughts. You are trying to TUNE into them. If you are aware of your thoughts, it means you are allowing and connecting to them.
How can this help with anxiety?
1. When you start to become more aware of your thoughts and feelings, you start to gain control.
2. You are beginning to slow your thoughts which will eventually give you the opportunity to intervene and choose how you want to respond rather than feel victim to the uncontrollable thoughts that so often race through our mind with anxiety.
3. You are also creating a relaxed body for those thoughts and feelings to surface. Your relaxed body is providing a sense of safety and confidence, allowing you to connect to and experience your feelings. When we face our feelings of hurt, pain, loss, and confusion, they hold less power and start to lessen. We don’t feel the urge to continue running. We won’t be afraid of the calm and quiet any more. We will be able to embrace and indulge in it.
4. You will be able to “stop and smell the roses.” You will be more present in your relationships, experiences and own body. You will be able to experience joy, happiness, satisfaction and accomplishment in a deeper, more colorful way. It is hard to do this as you run by these moments, trying to stay ahead of anxiety and all that it encapsulates.
5. Try incorporating mindfulness in other areas of your life.
1. Commit to one meal a day spent mindfully eating.
2. Pay attention to your meal’s presentation. What does it look like? What colors do you notice?
3. Before you bite into your food, take time to smell it. What do you smell? What feelings are triggered? Our sense of smell connects us to memories and feelings more than any other of our other senses.
4. Take time to chew your food. What does it feel like in your mouth? How would you describe the textures? How does it feel as you swallow the food?
As you begin to practice mindfulness, you will start to realize how disconnected you may be to your daily tasks and routines. How often have you driven to your destination, unaware of the signs, exits, and nature you pass on a regular basis? Oftentimes we eat to nurture or ‘stuff’ a feeling. Practicing mindfulness, will allow you to connect to your emotions. Hopefully, giving you the awareness, time, and compassion needed to deal directly with that feeling rather than stuffing it with food.
I tell my clients, “If you are going to eat a bag of cookies, practice eating it mindfully.” The need to eat the whole bag will probably lessen as you become more aware and prepared to deal with your emotions. The much needed piece to make this practice successful is being open, without judgment, as you experience your thoughts and feelings. When I am ‘stress-eating', I usually eat the whole bag of cookies and then the self-inflicted abuse starts. “What a pig!” “Can’t believe you ate the whole bag.” “Do you not have any self-control?” …Then what do you think happens? You guessed it.... I want to eat another bag of cookies!
Mindfulness has created the opportunity to check in with how I am feeling before I eat the cookies. Then, I can choose to do something different. I am not going to lie. I will probably still eat some of those cookies (I am still working on will-power) but I will also be aware that I am stressed and will decide to talk to a friend or practice deep breathing. I will figure out what I have control over and let go of what I don’t. The desire to scarf down the whole bag of cookies is no longer there. Learning a new skill takes practice, commitment and most importantly – compassion.
Since compassion is an important piece of building mindfulness, I invite you to take some time to reflect on what compassion means to you. Take a few deep breaths in and out, connecting you to this present moment as your body becomes more relaxed. Notice your breath come in and out from your heart space-the place where compassion is stored. Now, call to mind a time someone responded in a compassionate way to you. A time when someone reached out and you felt connected to the love they shared with you. Stay with this feeling, breathing it into your heart. Staying with it as long as you need, aware of your breath going in and out. As you exhale, you slowly breathe out, “Thank you. Thank you.” Continue doing this as long as you need. Other memories of compassion may come to mind, breathing each one in and slowly exhaling, “thank you”. Stay with these memories as they enter your heart, filling it deeply with love and compassion. As you do this, imagine a color that describes what your heart feels like filled with love and compassion. Breathe this color in and out as much as you would like, until you feel complete. When you feel ready, have your breath bring you to this present moment, becoming more aware of what you see and hear around you. Take this experience with you and draw upon this feeling of compassion when you need it next.
**Be sure to check on the many mindfulness resources on my 'Resource' page. Mindfulness is an evidenced-based practice.