Anxiety is worrying about the future. One reason mindfulness helps anxiety is that being mindful means being in the present. The more you practice dwelling in the present moment, the less room you have for anxiety. It sounds simple, and it is – just not easy.
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of bringing your mind to your experience of the present moment over and over again – body sensations, sounds, the feeling of breathing in and out. Minds are distractible. They like to comment, narrate, make judgments, create “stories”. An anxious mind will make up anxious stories. The body responds, for example the stomach churns, the heart races. This can generate more thoughts and emotions that perpetuate a continuous cycle of anxiety. Mindfulness practice enables you to gently bring your attention back to the bare experience of the present moment – your breath, your body, your current real feelings – without the filter of the story-making machine in your head. By learning how to do this, you can step out of the cycle of anxiety and more skillfully manage difficult emotions.
Mindfulness meditation isn’t going to make you happy all the time. Meditation isn’t for distracting you from your current anxiety or trying to “fight” it. Instead, meditation practice teaches you how to stay with your anxious feelings – and just the actual feelings – while seeing, and then letting go of, your thought-induced anxiety about your anxiety. This can take the form of thoughts such as how you are “always going to be an anxious and fragile person”, and how you always “freak out at the littlest things.” Mindfulness meditation, and the skills that come with regular practice, can help you slow down the escalating whirlwind of the anxiety cycle.
Are you anxious about feeling anxious?
Research shows that how we feel (and think) about our feelings affects us as much, or more, than our actual feelings. If we’re anxious about our anxiety, if we believe it’s an inherent part of who we are, or we judge ourselves harshly for it, the anxiety will have more negative effects on our minds and bodies than if we simply allow the initial anxious feelings to be present. Meta-emotions (how we feel about feelings) are powerful. We learn them from our parents, we use them for – or against – ourselves, and we teach them to our kids.
One reason meta-emotions are so important is that they govern whether we’re ok with feeling our feelings, or not. Feeling our feelings isn’t the same as reacting to our feelings. If we’re mindful we can see how feelings of anxiety are often followed by an instantaneous and unconscious reaction to the anxious feelings – typically something like “if I don’t make this go away right now I’m going to feel this way forever!” You can see how this drive to make the anxious feelings go away can lead to unhelpful behaviors (eating when you’re not hungry, or eating the wrong things, over-spending, alcohol or substance abuse, procrastination, the list goes on). Mindfulness enables a pause between the actual physical feeling and our automatic reaction to it. This ability to pause and feel your feelings as they are, without trying to make them go away and without magnifying them through runaway thoughts, enables you to stop the cycle, assess what you really need, and then do something that might actually be beneficial and healthy.
Just say Yes!
Jeffrey Brantley, MD, is the founder and director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at Duke Integrative Medicine. The following practice is adapted from his book Calming Your Anxious Mind.
The Yes Practice
The simple practice of saying “yes” to experiences as you become aware of them, coupled with mindful awareness, can release you from the deep habits of reactivity and help you stay connected to the present moment. The instructions are simple: As you are practicing mindfulness formally or informally, and you notice any pain or resistance arising, name the pain or upset that is present, and respond with a friendly “yes” to that experience, as if talking to it directly. For example: “Fear about my health, yes!” “Pain in my tooth, yes!” “Anxiety and worry about my job, yes.” You may want to try this in informal practice (the situations of daily life). For example: “Stuck in traffic, not moving, yes!” “Angry about what my coworker just said, yes!” “Frightened by the people walking toward me, yes!” The “yes” practice is a way for you to activate openheartedness as you pay attention moment by moment. Being mindful – noticing what is happening as it is happening – implies making space, being accepting, and not becoming lost in aversion and reactivity.