Anxiety is a tricky condition because it feeds itself. It is like a snow ball that rolls down a hill, collecting more snow and growing bigger as it rolls down. Peace of mind and relaxation are the opposite of anxiety. When we are relaxed we can be open hearted and open minded, and things seem to flow easily and freely. A peaceful mind can make it easier to respond to events in the world, rather than emotionally react.
When we are stressed and anxious on the other hand, we are more likely to make mistakes, things seem hard and we feel overwhelmed and exhausted. That is why it is said that love is the opposite to fear! Fear, stress and anxiety close our hearts, feed our defensiveness and put us into a state of fight/flight. So to decrease anxiety, the key is to starve the anxiety of the thoughts, feelings and actions that feed it.
Mindfulness helps us in this pursuit by teaching us how to witness the thoughts, feelings and actions that feed anxiety. It helps us do “dis-identify” from the roller-coaster of anxiety and its food.
The benefits of Mindfulness to reduce anxiety are twofold. Beside the process of witnessing, it also teaches us to breathe! The fight/flight response which is associated with anxiety is a physiological reaction that involves shortness of breath, increased heart rate, sweaty palms and nausea or an upset stomach. These physiological reactions occur because anxiety is a fear response where if we were faced with an immediate real threat, we would need to survive. So all the blood rushes to our hands and feet and away from our internal organs. We can help turn this physical anxiety response around however, we would be hard pushed to change our blood flow! So we focus on our breath! This is a physiological symptom of anxiety that we do have some control over. So mindfulness can help us to slow down our breath while witnessing our thoughts, feelings and actions.
There are several different forms of anxiety. There is generalised anxiety which is not consciously attached to any one cause or trigger. There is panic disorder and phobias, which is anxiety associated with a specific trigger. There is post traumatic stress disorder which results from experiencing a traumatic event. There is obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is an anxiety disorder that results in unusual ritual behaviour to avoid the anxiety and unusual believes. There is social phobia, which is a fear of social relating, and there is agoraphobia which is a fear of leaving the house. All of these conditions can be incredibly debilitating however, therapy can help make sense of the thoughts and feelings behind anxiety, and by using regular mindfulness practice, people can overcome these conditions.
Angie tended to feel sick in the stomach with anxiety every time she had to meet with her boss at work. Richard, her boss, was older than Angie and while he was a fair man, he had a self-confident and direct demeanour. After attending a meditation morning with her friend, Angie decided to begin a mindfulness practice to increase her awareness of her thoughts, emotions and physiological reactions, to reduce her stress. Most of the time throughout the day she gauged her anxiety and stress to be relatively calm. However, when she knew she had to speak to Richard, she noticed feeling sick in the stomach, her throat tighten, her palms were sweaty and her breathe was shallow. She also felt her heart quicken, her hands were slightly shaky and her mind became foggy. Before practicing mindfulness, Angie knew she was stressed when she had to see Richard, but she did not know how anxious she really felt.
As Angie allowed herself to witness her mind and body’s reactions to seeing Richard, she realised her own unique anxiety reaction. To turn it around and feel more confident, she slowed down her breathing and wriggled her fingers. She then challenged some of the thoughts that were entering her mind. She witnessed thoughts that told her she was inadequate and left her feeling like a small child. She knew she was a good worker and that she had nothing to hide and yet she felt like a “naughty girl”. As she watched her thoughts and emotions, she realised that she felt the same way when she was younger and got in trouble for things she did not do. So bit by bit she comforted her inner child within and learnt how to stay in her adult self while speaking to Richard.
The power of mindfulness is that in practicing it, we can increase our self-awareness if we allow ourselves to simply listen! Angie’s story is a great example of how over time we can benefit from increasing self-awareness and practicing mindfulness.
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