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.
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:
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:
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:
"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."
- Swami Kriyananda -
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:
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:
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:
"Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are."
- Chinese proverb -
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:
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:
"Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle."
- Rev. John Watson -
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:
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.