Unnecessary and unproductive worries, negative thoughts about the future, and a general fear of what the world can do to you – these are just some of the debilitating symptoms of anxiety.
Unwelcome thoughts and emotions can intrude at any time. You end up feeling distressed and helpless.
You have probably tried to talk yourself out of it – but that doesn’t always work. Your fear is too powerful.
One relatively new tool for coping with anxiety is mindfulness. Mindfulness is different from self-talk and other cognitive coping tools. It doesn’t engage with the anxious thoughts but takes you back to the center of your self.
And there are indications that it really works.
In a recent study conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Hoge from Harvard Medical School, patients who were taught to practice mindfulness mediation experienced a significant and lasting reduction in anxiety symptoms.
1. Stop and breathe
Mindfulness connects you to your breath, the primal source of life.
But it isn’t just another superficial breathing technique.
When you feel your anxiety mounting, stop whatever you are doing. Sit or stand for a moment, and feel the movement of your breath inside you. Just for a moment.
Your breath knows what to do. You don’t need to control it, and you don’t need to worry about it.
It is there.
2. Connect to your senses
Visual input around us can be distracting.
- Listen: If possible, close your eyes and listen to the sounds around you. Whatever they are. A soft breeze of wind, a car passing in the street, people talking in the distance.
- Smell: Is there anything you can smell? A flower? Food? Fresh laundry? Or the subtle smell of snow?
- Feel: Can you feel the weight of gravity connecting you to the ground? The surface of your chair?
Connecting to the senses helps you focus on the moment. The distracting thoughts don’t have all your mind space to themselves anymore.
3. Mindful Awareness
Once you are connected to the sensory input, try to explore it a little more.
What catches your attention right now?
Try to stay with that sound, that smell for a little longer. Just register what your senses report to you. Don’t think about it too much.
What is going on inside your body? Just notice it. Turn your attention to different parts of your body, coming slowly to the center.
If anxious thoughts try to intrude, acknowledge them. Don’t pretend they don’t exist. They are part of the whole picture, but the picture is so much bigger.
Your breath is there all the time. It knows what to do. Yes, right now.
4. Living in the Present
The goal of mindfulness practice is to live in the present.
The past is memory.
The future hasn’t happened yet.
If you are constantly afraid of the future, you are afraid of something that doesn’t exist.
But you can only live in the present if you connect to it.
Anxious thoughts and worries take you out of the present and into a fearful fantasy world of disasters. Anxiety robs you of your ability to experience your life right now.
Now is the time to practice your breathing techniques
Slow breathing, a very successful tool, helps cope with anxiety and also signals to your central nervous system that there is no danger right now. It can relax.
Breathe in slowly on 5 counts, hold your breath for 5 more counts, and then breathe out in 7 counts. Try to do this a few times and just observe what happens.
Slow breathing is not another burden that you have to master. It is a helpful awareness tool. And whatever you do (and however many counts you breathe in and out!), as long as you focus on your breath, you cannot fail.
Your breath knows what to do.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Some people devote their entire lives to meditation, a state of deep mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hahn, the famous Buddhist meditation teacher from Vietnam, has summarized what mediation means in one short sentence in his book, Being Peace.
“Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.”
He has a reputation for being inspired and inspiring – and very happy.