Anxiety can show itself in many forms. Some can be very painful and impairing, and we may need professional help to deal with them. But anxiety is something that everyone experiences at different times, and there’s something you can do about it.
One powerful tool that can help you navigate anxiety is mindfulness. Being aware of the present moment without judging it, and allowing experience to happen without trying to change it, can free you from the pain of your anxiety as well as help you understand its underlying causes.
But how do you do this? Like anxiety itself, the answer to this question is multifaceted. Anxiety manifests through our moment-to-moment thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. We suffer a great deal when we reject what’s actually happening in our moment-to-moment experience; by recognizing our habits of trying to “get rid of” experience, we can ease unnecessary suffering. What’s more, we can begin to understand the deeper, underlying causes of our anxiety.
Thinking Plays a Big Role
Our thinking patterns greatly influence how we see ourselves, others, and the world at large. As a consequence of our early interactions with caregivers, peers, and society, we create various thought patterns that continue to evolve throughout our lifetimes. Most of the time, we’re unaware of these patterns, so they can end up dictating a great deal of our lives.
For example, if as a child you were repeatedly told by your father that you weren’t good at something (or, conversely, that you were amazing at something), you likely internalized that message and it became part of your identity. You act accordingly and believe you aren’t good enough (or amazing) at that particular activity. And if you find yourself faced with the activity you believe you aren’t good at, you may experience anxiety, and doing the activity may be very difficult. In such situations, it’s as if we become that 6-year-old all over again.
Having a mindfulness practice can help us see our actual process of thinking, giving us some space from our thoughts. The next time you tell yourself that you can’t do something or that it’s too difficult, pay close attention to the tone of voice and words you’re using; you may recognize it as the voice of an influential person growing up. At this point, you may begin to appreciate that the thinking is not really “yours,” but an internalized voice.
With mindfulness, you can become aware of the thoughts without identifying with them. Again, this isn’t easy, and you may take a long time to get there—but it is absolutely possible. The more we practice mindfulness, the more this capacity develops.
What about Feelings?
Emotions are inevitable; we experience them all the time. Some are pleasant, and some are unpleasant. As humans, we tend to avoid the unpleasant ones and grasp for the pleasant ones. When we’re experiencing anxiety, our emotions can be especially difficult to tolerate, and we may try to suppress or get rid of them. The problem is, by doing this we perpetuate a rejection of ourselves, creating a negative feedback loop.
By developing a mindfulness practice, little by little you can begin to tolerate the emotional quality of anxiety, to the point that it becomes manageable. When you allow your experience to be what it is, it loses power over your sense of well-being. As with our thoughts, this skill takes time to learn, but it is very real. They key here is to practice.
Besides anxiety management, another important benefit that comes from emotional mindfulness is that we increase our capacity to know and understand our feelings. Many people experience anxiety because they lack a direct awareness of the emotions behind it. The more we became comfortable with our emotions, the deeper we see behind them and the less influence they have over us.
As you might sense, we miss out on a great sense of aliveness and dynamism when we live in our heads.
Everything Happens in the Body
Our bodies are our main vehicles for moving through life. They carry a tremendous amount of information, yet for the most part in modern society, we’ve lost touch with them. Emotions begin in the body, and so anxiety can show itself in the body, too, in ways such as contraction in the chest, heart palpitations, tightness in the stomach, and so on. As we develop the capacity to sense into our bodies, we can pick up on our different emotions earlier. We can also more easily see the impact others and the environment have on us.
At least in the West, most of us ignore our physical sensations and experience the world through thinking. Some of us take emotional life into account, but very few actually incorporate the body’s experience into our worldview. It makes a tremendous difference in our quality of life when we do. As you might sense, we miss out on a great sense of aliveness and dynamism when we live in our heads.
Ultimately, We Must Integrate All Three
Thoughts, emotions, and body sensations are not discrete, separate categories. The truth is, the three are complex and intertwined, affecting each other in many ways. Practicing mindfulness helps us to notice how our thoughts impact how we feel, how our feelings impact how tense our bodies are, and how our physical experience impacts our thoughts and feelings. The great news is that by becoming aware of any one of these processes, all of them begin to shift, harmonize, and flow.
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, although it’s possible to practice mindfulness alone, it’s beneficial to have a coach, guide, teacher, or therapist who can help you track your progress and notice when you encounter one of the many pitfalls along the way. Sometimes anxiety can increase when we begin paying attention to our long-ignored experiences. Sometimes anxiety is masking psychological trauma, and opening this up without appropriate support can be counterproductive. If you want to reduce your anxiety and reap the full benefits of mindfulness, seeking guidance is crucial to your practice.
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