Mindfulness and Anxiety: Changing the Way we Think
Many of us experience anxiety. This can include physical sensations such as an increased heart rate, sweaty palms, or ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, or can include thoughts of worry and panic. Sometimes we feel anxious in response to a particular situation but sometimes it can seem to come out of nowhere and it is really unpleasant!
Often when we feel anxious, we try to think our way out of it – if only we could think of a solution to how we feel then we would be ok. However, often the more we think the worse we feel.
One way of looking at this is to say that we have two modes of thinking: reflective thinking and rumination, or ‘stuck’ thinking.
When we reflect, we can understand ourselves and our difficulties more fully and can make positive decisions based on that understanding. After a time, the thinking is complete and we can let it go and move on. However, when we are stuck in rumination, our thinking goes round in circles and can feel repetitive. Worse still, we can get into a negative spiral of worry and ‘catastrophising.’ ‘Catastrophising’ is when we take our initial difficulty and imagine all the ways in which it can get worse and then all the subsequent steps so suddenly in your imagination you are ten years from now, in a far worse situation, because of a series of events that might never happen. We find ourselves living in an imaginary catastrophe.
Our minds are great at problem-solving. But what happens when the problem is emotional? When we try to think ourselves out of anxiety, instead of finding a ‘solution’, we often end up telling ourselves that we are the problem – that there is something wrong with us. So we end up feeling even worse.
So how do we know the difference and how can we move away from stuck thinking into a healthier way of managing anxiety?
This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is becoming increasingly popular as a way of managing emotional difficulties such as anxiety. Mindfulness is a way to develop moment-by-moment awareness, that is non-judgemental, appreciative and self-compassionate. So instead of telling ourselves that there is something wrong with us, we can learn to treat ourselves and our anxiety with kindness. Just as we would be kind and supportive to a friend or loved one who is feeling anxious, we can learn to be kind to ourselves.
Mindfulness offers a series of tools to manage difficulties more effectively. These tools include formal meditation practices and informal practices, such as carrying out everyday tasks with greater awareness. Or it can simply be a reminder to come back to our moment-by-moment experience rather than staying stuck in thoughts.
Every time we notice those familiar sensations, instead of criticising ourselves we can focus on the here and now. We can notice and be kind to those sensations and open up to other experiences. The experience of anxiety is only part of the story – maybe we can be aware of something pleasant too, however subtle. Anxiety is unpleasant, but mindfulness teaches us that we have a choice. We can choose to be kinder to ourselves, without adding self-critical, catastrophic thinking.
For more information you can join a mindfulness course or group, have one-to-one mindfulness training or mindfulness based counselling with a therapist. You may also find it helpful to read about mindfulness in a book or online. There are lots of resources out there. We don’t need to wait until things are difficult to use mindfulness – the practice can be of great benefit as part of everyday life.
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