If we practice mindfulness, we always have a place to be when we are afraid.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
Anxiety Afflicts Nearly 1 in 5 Americans
More people in the United States struggle with anxiety than with any other disease. There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this, you’re one of about 40 million Americans who suffer from some sort of anxiety disorder.
Sadly, the vast majority of these people go untreated. Those who do seek help will often try pill after pill in a quest for something that eases the symptoms without any overwhelming side effects. It can be a difficult venture.
But mindfulness exercises can help. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: On purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Researchers have found a marked reduction in anxiety symptoms as a result of mindfulness meditation. And taking just a few minutes to practice a mindfulness exercise can seriously reduce anxiety’s authority over you.
Why Use Mindfulness When You’ve Already Got a Prozac Prescription?
People with anxiety disorders so often find themselves overrun by worry about things outside their control: Will they turn off my phone if I can’t pay the bill next week? Will I start getting more hours at work? What’s that weird pain I keep feeling?
Even if you’re treating symptoms with medication, it’s still a good idea to try and mitigate their source. Mindfulness gives you a safe place to start investigating the stressors that cause your anxiety.
Researchers find that mindfulness—focusing non-judgmentally on each present moment— activates certain parts of the brain responsible for governing thinking and emotion.
Mindfulness Keeps You Rooted in the Present
When we worry about a hypothetical future, we forget to spend time in the present. We miss what’s going on around us and how we feel right now.
“The present” is sometimes difficult to grapple with. You might be thinking, “I’m panicking now because I know I can’t pay that phone bill.”
But that’s next week. Try narrowing your focus. Think not even of this evening, an hour from now, or five minutes from now. Pay attention to the present moment.
Take Inventory of Your “Now”
We often think of meditation as a “clearing” or “emptying” of the mind, a task that can seem nearly impossible for anxiety sufferers. How could we possibly turn off all the thoughts flying through our brains?
Mindfulness is not about turning off, though. It’s more about tuning in. Root yourself in the present and see what’s there. Watch your doubts and fears approach and move beyond you. Inspect them for what they are. Accept them.
How to Practice Mindfulness Now
1. Eliminate whatever physical distractions you can.
• If possible, find a quiet place.
• Silence your phone. Close the laptop. Turn off the TV.
2. Sit up straight in a chair.
• Line up your ears with your shoulders and your nose with your navel.
• Look at a spot on the floor about six to eight feet ahead.
• Don’t worry about trying to breathe the “right” way.
• Don’t try to change it—the last thing you need is yet another worry.
• Do pay attention to your breath. Observe it.
*Direct your focus entirely to the inhale, then the exhale… If it helps you to stay in the moment, count your breaths or say “in” on the inhale and “out” on the exhale… Your brain might take this opportunity to bombard you with all the thoughts that cause your anxiety… That is fine. Now you can observe and work with the thoughts rather than trying to fight them.
4. Notice when an anxious thought arises.
• Focus on it as being just that—a thought.
• Name the thought. Say “Fear,” “Panic,” “Concern,” or whatever word feels right.
• Determine whether an image of a specific person or thing came before the thought and possibly caused it.
• Notice how strong the thought is and how long it lasts. There’s a good chance the thought itself is transient. Does it sweep right by? Is it only your focus on it that makes it last?
5. Notice changes in your body.
• Are you reacting physically? Is your body resisting the thought?
• Observe any resistance non-judgmentally, and let it be a part of the experience.
6. Keep breathing.
• Pay attention to your breath.
• Watch as the thoughts come—and just as importantly, watch as they go.
Try to do this mindfulness exercise for five minutes the first time. After that, add time little by little. Use it to get to know yourself and your fears on a concrete level, and with practice, it can help to relieve your anxiety for good!
Find more exercises related to mindfulness based stress reduction here.
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Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at [email protected]
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