“No longer forward nor behind I look in hope and fear; But grateful take the good I find, the best of now and here.” – John Whittier
Anxiety sweeps us away from the present moment into a flurry of thoughts and emotions about the past and the future. We may become overwhelmed by worry over things that have already happened in the past or we may become paralyzed by fear of what the future holds. Worry is ineffective when it results in physical, mental, and emotional paralysis. Anxiety can be useful, productive, and motivating when it gives us a healthy dose of energy to tackle important tasks or reminds us that something is very important in some way.
Mindfulness provides the opportunity to reconnect with the present moment and defuse from the cognitions that serve to maintain and exacerbate anxiety. When you become the mindful observer of your internal experience (sensations, thoughts, and emotions), you begin to recognize that you have a choice as to how you wish to interact with the components of your internal experience. As a mindful observer, you see that it is up to you if you wish to feed into the anxiety by ruminating and allowing your breath to quicken. It is also within your control to mindfully disengage from overwhelming thoughts and emotions and settle into the calmness of the moment.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
gBegin to become more aware of your personal cues that you may be experiencing anxiety. While there are many individual differences in the subjective experience of anxiety, there are some commonalities. These are some symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (which affects 5.7% of adults in the U.S. at some point in their lifetimes):
- Feeling wound-up, tense, or restless
- Easily becoming fatigued or worn out
- Difficulty with concentration
- Significant muscle tension
- Sleep difficulties
You can begin to develop a different relationship with your anxiety by thinking of it in a similar way as irritating music from a noisy neighbor. While you may not always be able to directly control (or eliminate) the source of your anxiety and discontent, you do have a choice about how to listen to that noise in a different way. You can change your attitude from one of frustration and intolerance to a mindful attitude of openness and curiosity. While the “music” – your anxious thoughts – may not magically disappear, the way that you relate to them is up to you.
Mindfulness Exercise: Anxiety Reduction
When you find yourself experiencing symptoms of anxiety, try engaging in the 4-step mindfulness exercise for anxiety:
(1) Get comfortable and sit in an upright and poised position on a sofa or chair.
Gently close your eyes and direct your focus inward. Ask yourself, “What I am experiencing in this present moment?” Notice the thoughts that emerge in your mind with openness, acceptance, and curiosity. Try to avoid judging any aspects of your experience and simply allow it to be just as it is. Notice any emotions that you may be experiencing – relate to them with kindness and compassion. Observe your bodily sensations with the same mindful attitude. As much as possible, allow yourself to fully open up to the reality of your experience for a few minutes.
(2) Place your hand on your belly and feel your belly rise and fall with your breath.
Allow your attention to gently rest on this step. Bring your complete mindful awareness to the sensation of your belly rising and falling in unison with your breath. Allow your breath to become slow and steady as you make the connection between your thoughts, emotions, and physical experience. If anxious thoughts or emotions arise, acknowledge them and bring your awareness back to your breath. If you find yourself judging any aspects of your experience, imagine yourself breathing out the judgment with each breath as you let go and surrender to the present moment. Continue until your breath feels calm and steady.
(3) Expand your awareness to a sense of your entire body breathing, with wide and spacious attention, rather than focused attention on the belly breath alone.
Visualize your entire being breathing in the oxygen that nourishes your body. Picture yourself breathing in fresh, pure, and clean air, then imagine yourself breathing out any anxious thoughts, judgments, or self-criticisms. Let go of the need to judge your experience and allow yourself to “be” in this moment. Become centered into your body as a whole as you allow your mindful awareness to fully notice your breath.
(4) Note the transition from this mindfulness exercise back into your daily life.
When you feel yourself fully centered, calm, and present with your body, thoughts, and emotions, gently open your eyes. Bring your full awareness back to your presence in the room. Notice the feel of the chair or sofa underneath you. Wiggle your toes and fingers and blink your eyes. Begin to reflect on how you can bring this same mindful sense of calm awareness and acceptance into your daily life.
When you find yourself overwhelmed by troubling thoughts or powerful emotions, you can use mindfulness as a tool to bring your awareness back to the present moment. You can learn to radically accept this moment in its entirety. No matter where you go or what happens outside of you, you always have yourself to turn back to for calmness and nourishment. When you strengthen your mindful awareness through a regular mindfulness practice, you will feel stronger and more able to reap the maximum benefits from a brief mindfulness exercise such as this during times of stress or tension.
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This article is for information purposes only and is not intended for self-diagnosis or as a substitute for consultation. If you have questions about generalized anxiety disorder or any other mental health issue described above, consult with a mental health professional.
Alidina, S. (2011). Mindfulness for dummies. West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Featured image: Road meditation by Kashirin Nickolai / CC BY 2.0