Mindfulness Exercises

8 Facts About Anxiety (and their Mindful Solutions)

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Anxiety is a state of chronic worry that keeps us fixated on imagined future events. Anxiety differs from stress in that it manifests as a physical or emotional response even in the absence of a stressor. Mindfulness and meditation can ease anxiety. The healing begins with awareness, and an understanding of the facts about anxiety. 

Understanding Anxiety

Occasional short-lived anxiety is a normal part of life. Butterflies in your stomach encourage you to prepare for your upcoming job interview, or alert you to risky situations. But when anxiety is chronic, it’s problematic. Chronic anxiety is a stress response that’s disproportionate to the reality of the situation. This type of anxiety is far removed from a current stressor. Instead, it’s triggered by memory of past stress or anticipation of future stress. 

Chronic anxiety grows if it’s not addressed. Anxiety that interferes with enjoyment of daily life possibly qualifies as a clinical anxiety disorder. The five most common types of anxiety disorders include the following: 

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Panic Disorder
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Social Anxiety Disorder or Social Phobia

If you have anxiety or an anxiety disorder, you’re not alone. Anxiety is the most common mental illness worldwide. In the United States alone nearly 20% of the adult population has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and even more experience chronic anxiety to a lesser, but still troubling, extent. 

Anxiety manifests in physical, cognitive and emotional ways. If you’re anxious, you’ve likely experienced several of the following symptoms:  

Physical Symptoms:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Rapid or shallow breathing
  • Stomach discomfort or digestion issues
  • Restlessness and fidgeting
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Muscular tension
  • General fatigue or excessive daytime sleeping

Emotional Symptoms:

  • Worry
  • Fear
  • Irritability
  • Nervousness
  • Dread

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Negative future thinking or catastrophic thinking
  • Obsessive, ruminative thoughts
  • Feeling as if you’re going crazy, unsure of reality

It’s tempting to speculate on the cause of anxiety. We may blame past traumatic events, social media, social phobias, stress at the office, or relationships. Yet looking back to question the past does nothing to ease our worry. In fact ruminative thinking can be a source of greater anxiety. The secret to relief lies not in identifying a past cause, but in addressing our present state of mind. 

To crack the code on becoming less anxious, we must begin with awareness. Understanding anxiety and what gives it power allows us to take power back. Only then can we live a life of freedom, peace and ease.

Anxiety Fact Number 1: We Don’t Always Know We’re Anxious

Many of us are anxious without even realizing it. It’s only after the panic attack or traumatic life-changing event that we look back with clear eyes and realize we’ve been anxious all along. By applying mindfulness to current sensations in our body and mind, we can identify our anxiety and do the work to ease it before we boil over. Noticing our anxiety isn’t about judging or self-critiquing, it’s about getting to know ourselves better.

The Mindful Solution: Become Aware of Your Anxiety

When we’re mindful of our anxiety, we have the opportunity to make changes. Because anxiety manifests physically, cognitively, and emotionally, we must apply awareness to each of these areas. 

Deepen your awareness of body and mind by pausing for the following mindfulness exercise: 

  • With eyes open or closed, become aware of your breath
  • Without judgement, notice the quality of your breathing
  • Turn your attention further inward to your body
  • What do you notice about the body? Tightness? Any pain? 
  • Stay curious and open to sensation, free from self-criticism
  • Having checked in with body and breath, notice your state of mind
  • Are there emotions present that you relate to these physical sensations?
  • Are certain thought patterns at play in the mind?
  • Continue to stay open and curious. Avoid self-blame
  • The exercise here is to simply notice
  • Acknowledge your anxiety and allow it to be present
  • Ask what it’s trying to tell you

“Happiness is not a brilliant climax to years of grim struggle and anxiety. It is a long succession of little decisions simply to be happy in the moment.”

Anxiety Fact Number 2: Anxiety Thrives When You’re Not Present

For anxiety to function it requires the mind to be in the past or the future. This is especially true of anxiety that’s related to past trauma, or anticipatory anxiety which is related to fear of upcoming events. Studies show those who experience anxiety have a negativity bias when it comes to future thinking. If you’re anxious, you think the worst is yet to come and you have difficulty seeing things any other way. 

The trouble with living in the past or the future is it keeps us separated from reality. It also keeps us separated from the only moment in which it’s possible to experience joy, contentment and peace – the present. 

The Mindful Solution: Get Present

All types of meditation keep us in the here and now, but a body scan is a very good way to get grounded in the present. Focusing on the physical form of our body, the stability of the earth, and the connection between the two settles the energy of anxiety. 

The next time you notice your mind is in the past or future, try the following mindfulness exercise:  

  • Seated or lying down, with eyes opened or closed, notice your breath
  • Let breath awareness guide you in towards the felt experience of your body
  • What sensations are present in the body?
  • Scan from your head, all the way down to your toes, take as much times as you need
  • Remain curious and open, free from self-judgment
  • Shift attention to the parts of the body that are connected to your seat, or to the earth
  • Recognize the support and solidity of the structure(s) beneath you
  • Allow yourself to feel held in this space, feel held by the earth
  • Once you feel safe, slowly open awareness to the sounds, smells, or sights all around you
  • Notice that within this wider space, you’re still held, still connected to the ground
  • Maintain awareness of that connection even as you move about your day
Will Mindfulness Help My Anxiety?

Anxiety Fact Number 3: Anxiety Blinds You to What’s Going Right

Although it doesn’t always seem like it, nothing is ever 100% negative. In every moment, there’s something going right. This positive occurrence could simply be the fact that we’re breathing and our heart is beating. When we’re anxious, we’re blinded to the positive. Our negativity bias not only applies to imagined future events, but prevents us from recognizing anything positive that’s happening in the present.

The Mindful Solution: Practice Gratitude

We can mindfully counteract the habit of negative thinking by training the mind to be more aware of what’s good. The best way to do this is by practicing gratitude. Gratitude protects the mind from anxiety by decreasing self-critical thoughts and increasing self-compassion. 

To counter anxiety with gratitude, try the following mindfulness exercise:

  • Be still for a moment with your eyes opened or closed
  • Breathe slowly and patiently in and out through your nose
  • As you notice your breath, allow a warm sensation of gratitude to expand within your heart
  • Look upon the breath with wonder, recognize how special and precious it is
  • Extend this same gratitude and awe to your heart
  • Feel the warm sensation of gratitude within your heart grow and expand
  • Recognize how special and precious your heartbeat is
  • Expand the warmth of gratitude throughout your whole body
  • Let it fill your whole torso, legs and arms, your head
  • Look upon the entire body with wonder and awe
  • Rest in gratitude for your body and all the amazing ways in which it serves you

Anxiety Fact Number 4: Anxiety is a Dysfunction of the Amygdala

The amygdala is the part of our brain that controls reaction to fear. Fear is brief, focused on present stimuli, and helps us avoid or escape danger. Anxiety on the other hand is a sustained hyperarousal in response to uncertainty, and often focused on an imagined future scenario. Rather than being helpful, anxiety prevents us from acting and encourages unhealthy avoidance. Scientists are beginning to understand anxiety as hyperactivity of the amygdala

The Mindful Solution: Meditate Daily

Meditating daily changes the structure of the brain via a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Specifically, meditation calms activity in the amygdala, even shrinking this area of the brain over time. This makes us less reactive to stimuli that would otherwise provoke our anxiety. Just five minutes of daily meditation creates lasting change. 

If you’re new to meditation, begin with breath awareness using the following mindfulness exercise: 

  • Sit up tall in a quiet place where you can be free from distractions
  • Set a timer for 5 minutes (or longer)
  • With your eyes opened or closed, breathe gently in and out through your nose
  • Give your mind the job of paying attention to the breath
  • Watch and notice your breath without judgment, and without trying to change
  • Eventually, you’ll notice the mind has wandered from breath awareness
  • When this happens, turn the mind around and come back to the breath
  • Do this as many times as you need to
  • Each time the mind wanders, turn the mind around without pausing to self-criticize
  • With practice, you’ll notice sooner when the mind has wandered
  • With practice, you’ll return to breath awareness more quickly
  • With practice, you’ll remain present with the breath for longer intervals between distractions

“Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.”

Anxiety Fact Number 5: Anxiety Relies on Attachment to Your Thoughts

For anxious and catastrophic thinking to get the best of us, we have to believe what we think. Without mindfulness, we become so enmeshed in our own thoughts, we leave very little room for perspective. We identify with our thoughts and emotions. The imagined becomes real, and we lose the ability to be self-reflective. Self-reflection mitigates anxiety by provoking insight and self-regulation. 

The Mindful Solution: Learn to Mindfully Doubt Your Thoughts

With mindfulness, we learn to create space between thoughts and the self who experiences the thought. By creating distance between ourselves and our thoughts, we’re able to be self-reflective. We leave room for the possibility that our thoughts may not be true. Each thought becomes less precious, and we learn to lovingly let go of thought patterns that aren’t in our best interest. 

To kindly distance yourself from your thoughts, try the following mindfulness exercise:

  • Sit up tall in a quiet place where you can be free from distractions
  • Breathe slowly and evenly in and out through your nose
  • Anchor your attention on the breath
  • As thoughts arise, notice them as if from a distance
  • Visualize your thoughts as if they are clouds or bubbles
  • Stay anchored to your breath as your thoughts float on by
  • Practice lovingly allowing your thoughts to shift, change and flow
  • Avoid chasing, following or attaching to thought
  • Avoid trying to stop thoughts or push them away
  • Recall that you are not your thoughts, but their witness
  • Look upon each thought with curiosity, or awe
  • Love your thoughts, and at the same time, let them go
9 Meditation Scripts for Anxiety

Anxiety Fact Number 6: Anxiety is not a Permanent State

When we’re experiencing anxiety it can feel like a permanent, fixed state. We feel trapped in our anxiety as if it’s boxing us in, and as if there’s no escape. The truth is, anxiety, like all emotions, has a shelf life. It comes and goes and is always changing. Simply remembering there’s potential for anxiety to transform can kick start the process of change.  

The Mindful Solution: Remember All Things are Impermanent

The nature of all things is to change. With mindfulness, we work to ensure this change is for the better. When anxiety causes the world to feel as though everything is solid and fixed, remembering how much we’ve already changed can open the door to an equally transformative experience in the future. 

To be reminded that all things, including your anxiety, will someday change, try the following mindfulness exercise:

  • Sit quietly in a safe place, with eyes opened or closed
  • Breathe gently in and out through your nose
  • Settle your energy by spending some time watching the breath
  • Think back to the earliest months of your life, when you were only a baby
  • Recall how different your body was then
  • Recall too, how little you understood of the world
  • Recall the things you once believed that are no longer true
  • Reflect back on the course of your life
  • Notice all the physical changes you have gone through
  • Notice the changes to your world view
  • Notice how much has changed in your body and mind
  • Contemplate the possibility that change is occurring right now
  • Contemplate the possibility that your world view could shift
  • Rest in awareness that neither your body nor your mind are static, unchanging, or still

“Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”

Anxiety Fact Number 7: You are Not Alone in Your Anxiety

To function, our pain and anxiety requires us to think we’re alone and separate from others, but it’s just not true. Statistics tell us nearly 1 in 3 people will experience chronic anxiety in their lifetime. Of the 7.6 billion people on this planet, as well as those who have been here before us, it’s impossible we’re alone in our pain. Whatever anxious feelings you’re experiencing, there are countless others who feel the same way. Infinite others have felt this way before, and have recovered and healed.    

The Mindful Solution: Practice Compassion for Yourself and Others

Recognizing you’re not alone in your suffering softens your view of the self as separate from others and helps ease pain. Mindfulness, especially mindful compassion practices, increase our awareness of the human-ness of our experience and our connection to others. Sharing our humanity in this way reduces anxiety’s power by broadening our perspective. 

To ease your anxiety by opening your heart to compassion, begin with the following mindfulness exercise: 

  • Sit tall in a quiet and safe place
  • Breathe patiently and evenly in and out through your nose
  • Take note of how you’re feeling in your body, heart and mind. 
    • Recall that these feelings are not yours alone to carry 
    • There are many others who feel the same way you do
    • Recognize your thoughts and emotions as a shared human experience
    • Be kind to yourself. Accept how you are feeling. Extend yourself compassion

  • Next, bring to mind a loved one, visualize them sitting across from you
  • Take note of this loved one in all their complexity
  • Recognize they too, feel anxiety, difficulty, or pain. 
    • Recall that these feelings are not theirs alone to carry 
    • You, and many others feel the same way they do
    • Recognize their thoughts and emotions as a shared human experience
    • May they be kind to themselves. May they accept how they are feeling. Extend them compassion

  • Next, repeat the same exercise with an acquaintance, a challenging person, or with all beings in the world

Anxiety Fact Number 8: Meditation Isn’t Always the Only Solution

When anxiety is at clinical levels or rooted in past trauma, mindfulness can potentially increase discomfort by drawing attention to anxious feelings in the body or mind. If you have an adverse reaction to any of the above mindfulness exercises, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Meditation alone is not always enough to ease our pain. What’s important is that we notice, and adjust our mindfulness practice accordingly. 

The Mindful Solution: Seek Professional Help When Needed

Reaching out to a trauma-informed meditation teacher, counselor, or therapist is a very mindful thing to do! Your practice will benefit when you learn to work at a level that soothes rather than stimulates your anxious mind. When a mindfulness or meditation practice is not the sole solution to your anxiety, it can still be an important piece of a healthy, comprehensive anxiety solution. 

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