Mindfulness and anxiety
Often when we start practicing mindfulness we might start to become more aware of the experience of anxiety. We start to notice the physical sensations of anxiety more in our bodies. Perhaps butterflies in your stomach, short and shallow breathing or our heart beating faster or harder. So many times I have heard people that have just started practicing mindfulness say, “I think I’m a really anxious person, I’ve just never noticed it before!” And it is just that, they have never noticed before. Mindfulness gets us more in touch with our feelings, as well as our thoughts and habits.
Anxiety can be seen as an emotion that often results from a real or imagined threat. The body doesn’t distinguish between an imagined threat and a real one. We might notice that most of the distress we go through comes from our imagination, rather than our reality. Our imagination changes the physiology of our bodies all the time. Think about one of your favorite thing to eat. One of mine is salt and vinegar crisps! Take a moment and really imagine seeing your favorite food, smelling it, putting it in your mouth.
Do you notice any changes in your body? Are you salivating? But there isn’t really any food in front of you. That’s how powerful your mind is. And so your mind can shape how you feel. If you are feeling anxious, watch what is happening in your mind. What do you notice?
To understand anxiety, just sit quietly and draw your attention inward and watch your thoughts. It can be helpful to separate the feelings of anxiety from the anxious thoughts and the perceived threat. Anxiety is future related. Let’s consider how it works. Say you are on holiday in the Rockies in Canada and someone says to you before you leave, “Watch out for wolf tracks”. You will be on guard for wolf tracks. You will be anxious of seeing them. But you’re not afraid of wolf tracks really, you are afraid of seeing the wolf. Then you see the wolf, and you’re not afraid of seeing the wolf, you’re afraid of being attacked. But wait, are you really afraid of being attacked, or are you afraid of what might come after? Anxiety is an escalation of the future.
So you might like to reflect on your own anxieties;
Are you really afraid of heights, or are you afraid of falling?
Do you fear the dark, or do you fear what’s in the dark?
Are you afraid of flying, or are you afraid of what might come next?
Are you afraid to love, or are you afraid of getting hurt?
Anxiety is often interpreted as an unpleasant feeling in the body. Back in the old days, and I mean the really old days, on the plains of the Savanna, we evolved to be very sensitive to threats. Unfortunately, we didn’t evolve to walk round thinking positive thoughts. That tribe got wiped out! We evolved because we assumed the worst; we assumed that the noise in the bush was a tiger. This kept us alive. But that means that in this modern day life, we imagine a lot of threats that cause us worry. The way our brain works means that threats are prioritised over any other processing, and the brain detects threats quicker than anything else.
Once we identify the threat in our minds and acknowledge it, we can then use mindful awareness to focus on the actual feelings of anxiety and allow them to be there as best as we can with a non-judgemental awareness. We can recognise that the thoughts are taking us away from this present moment. We can then recognise the peace we have right here, right now, in this moment. There is no need to engage with the thoughts of the future. They take away the peace from what we have right here and now. And this moment is all we do really have. We don’t have the future, because it hasn’t happened.
Mindfulness helps us not avoid anxiety. We can recognise the emotion and not act on it. If we can become aware of the feelings of anxiety and observe how it feels in the body, then we can watch it. If we bring our attention to it, then we no longer are the emotion, we don’t see the world as if through the emotion. Instead we notice that a part of us is feeling anxious, and we are not that part.
Anxiety is actually trying to protect you. But in my experience the anxiety we experience is largely disproportionate to life.
Our relationship to anxiety can be quite helpful to consider. If we are aversive to the feeling of anxiety or fear anxiety, it will be much more a part of our lives. But if we can accept the fact that anxiety is actually a part of life and that it in itself cannot cause us any harm, in order words anxiety is nothing to fear, then we are more likely to be able to embrace the feelings of anxiety when they do occur.
So it is not the experience of anxiety that creates problems, but the interpretation and the resistance to it. The emotion itself is never a problem. It is the way we view it. Do you ever say to yourself “this feeling is unbearable.” But is it? Is it really unbearable?
The sensations of anxiety are not a threat. What if you trusted the body? Trust that this feeling can’t hurt us, that it is there for a reason. Feeling the emotion just as it is, without any judgement. Have faith that you wouldn’t be given the capacity to feel something that could overwhelm you or that was unbearable.
All emotions pass. Like the wind. So yes, the feeling of anxiety may come back again. You may have a breeze, or you may have a strong gust. But again it will pass. Your natural state is peace, and this is where you can learn to observe your feelings from. It is possible to be at peace and watch a feeling of anxiety, hurt, anger or sadness pass through the body.