The American Psychological Association (APA) is talking about anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” It is important to know that all of us have feelings of anxiety from time to time, especially before specific stressful events like exams, interviews or other life events that are perceived as difficult. Usually, when feeling that we are in danger, our flight or fight mode gets activated, so our body helps us survive the dangerous situation we might be in, like being attacked by a stray dog or hearing someone behind us when walking on a dark road at night. Nowadays anxiety doesn’t only get triggered when we are attacked by a bear as our ancestors were, but it revolves around work, financial security, emotional security and other stressful matters that cannot always be helped when the flight or fight gets activated. The system that once was helping us for survival can nowadays send false alarms to our brain and misbehave by perceiving a real threat even though there is nothing life-threatening happening.
Imagine being at the beach, with a nice drink in your hands, the breeze gently touching your face, while suddenly your heart starts racing like crazy. Laying on a beach is a situation most people would perceive as one of the most relaxing activities there are, however, our amygdala can get falsely triggered in any type of situation and make us feel as if we are dying even if we have all the conditions to relax. This is one of the common symptoms anxiety can have on an individual – a typical panic attack.
There are different approaches when it comes to treating anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) being the most widely-used therapy for all type of anxiety disorders. Medication can be prescribed as well if CBT alone does not provide results for a determined period of time.
However, recent studies are exploring the new approaches we can use in treating anxiety and depression. One of the practices that are becoming more popular for anxiety and depression is mindfulness. With practices derived from ancient Buddhist and Yoga teachings, mindfulness-based therapy (MBT), which includes mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR); has gained popularity in the form of treatment in psychotherapy.
Put simply, mindfulness is the practice of being aware of what you are experiencing in the present moment, with no judgement. Being mindful means bringing that awareness to your thoughts and experiences while detaching from them without giving them a meaning. In anxiety, a mindful approach can help us see anxiety for what it is – a malfunction of our amygdala, instead of getting caught up in worse case scenarios that might make us more anxious than we were to begin with. By being mindful, we are able to watch the thoughts as they come and they go, just like the clouds do on a sunny day.
If your worries are negative and don’t serve any purpose, you can train yourself to disengage with them. For example, when thinking “I am a disaster, no one likes me” with mindfulness you don’t identify with the thought anymore and look at it like: ‘Oh, there’s that thought again. I’ve had it before. But it’s just a thought, a certainty.”
Here are some mindful qualities we can cultivate that can help us in working with anxiety mindfully.
Patience – realizing the impermanence of any feeling, including anxiety, helps us know any good or bad state comes and goes. By knowing this, even if we feel extremely bad at a given moment, we know for sure there will come a period of ease. Therapists usually recommend writing down the anxiety levels on a 24hr or 48hr period, so you can see that anxiety decreases, and that it doesn’t always feel constantly as intense as it might seem when you look back and evaluate your life.
Acceptance – Resisting and denying anxiety are one of the attitudes we might adapt when feeling long periods of heightened anxiety. We try to resist it, thinking it will go away, but as they say – what you resist, persists. As Eckart Tolle beautifully says in The Power Of Now, “If you looked in the mirror and did not like what you saw, you would have to be mad to attack the image in the mirror. That is precisely what you do when you are in a state of nonacceptance. And, of course, if you attack the image, it attacks you back. If you accept the image, no matter what it is, if you become friendly toward it, it cannot not become friendly toward you. This is how you change the world.” And this is how you change your attitude towards anxiety, too.
Nonjudgment – means looking at your anxiety detached, without any judgment or evaluation. Without trying to think “this is horrible, I cannot live with it”, but instead looking at it for what it is – anxiety, that will eventually come and go. Attaching a strong negative meaning to it can only make it worse – during a panic attack, those who experience it think they will die, thought that only attracts worst-case scenarios make things far worse at the moment. Instead, while having a panic attack, through mindfulness you can see the feelings of panic or the physical symptoms as they appear, knowing it’s just a malfunction of your amygdala – that almond-shaped section of the brain that is responsible for detecting fear and preparing for emergency events, has perceived a threat that is actually not there. You are able to know being in a supermarket or in a crowd does not put your life in danger, so you are able to detach from that faulty system that tries to trick you into believing you are about to die.
Nonstriving, similar to letting it be, means allowing what you experience to just be. By practicing this attitude, we are able to look at what we experience for what it is, without trying to change it in any way. Whenever you are feeling strong anxiety or the urge of a panic attack, the first reaction will be to get out of the place you’re in. In this situation, by practicing nonstriving, you would be able to continue what you were doing before feeling the anxiety kicking in, without trying to exit the premises and look for a safe spot as soon as possible in order to ease your anxiety.
Self-compassion – How would you treat your best friend during a panic attack? Would you put them down even more by letting them know they are doing something wrong, or would you tell them they are just enough and nothing that happens is their fault? Anxiety might come with a lot of self-blame, especially when you know you shouldn’t feel scared but you still do, or when your therapist said next time you have a panic attack in a supermarket you should stay there, but you still run home as fast as you can. Knowing how to practice self-love and self-compassion will help you feel that you are doing the best you can. Even if some days might not look like it, there are plenty of other days when you put a brave smile on your face and still go to the supermarket, and still go see your friends even though you know anxiety might kick any time. And that is what bravery looks like.
As your self-compassion grows, you will come to know that you are there for yourself and you are doing the best that you can to deal with each situation you find yourself in. In time, you will learn to ride a wave of anxiety until it dissipates, just as a storm runs its course in the sky, and then it all calms down.