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Anxiety

How to Use Mindfulness to Ease Anxiety

When anxious feelings and thoughts begin to build, mindfulness techniques offer an accessible way to reconnect to our steady center and interrupt the stress response.

We all feel a bit anxious sometimes. It’s a common reaction when we feel uncertain about the future or are stepping into unfamiliar territory. In these situations, we might experience nervousness, worry, and even fear, with physical sensations like increased heart rate, sweaty palms, dry mouth, and muscle tension, among others.

These are all signs of what’s known as a biological acute stress response and are indications that, on some level, we feel threatened, and our body is preparing itself to fight or flee.

It is important to know that anxious thoughts can make the body feel that it’s under threat, and so it responds in the same way as if a real danger was present.

As we spend more time in fight-or-flight mode, our thoughts start racing, which then makes us more anxious. If we don’t take steps to soothe ourselves, this can become a vicious cycle that feels more and more distressing over time.

Mindfulness meditation teaches us to access our calm center. A good analogy is to imagine that the mind is like a lake, where the waves at the surface are always changing. Sometimes the surface is calm, but it can become tumultuous from strong wind or storms.

No matter what is happening on the surface, however, the depths of the lake remain calm.

Our thoughts and emotions are like the water’s surface, and it is ever-changing. Sometimes things feel calm and peaceful; sometimes we ride the currents with relative ease.

But when life throws stresses and challenges our way, our thoughts and feelings can also get stormy and tumultuous. Anxiety is those roiling waters.

Mindfulness trains us to not be caught at the surface of who we are. It helps us connect to the deeper, inner calm, even when the waters are choppy. It is from this place that we are able to navigate through and respond to the waves of life with more clarity, wisdom, and skill.

Understanding Anxiety

When we’re faced with something new and unfamiliar, it’s not uncommon to experience some anxious feelings. Usually the apprehension and nervousness subside on their own—the unknown becomes more familiar and, as a result, the “threat” disappears. You might say that the squall passes and the waters still.

But sometimes anxiety doesn’t subside. When worry, fear, and dread persist or get worse without any rational cause, it’s considered an anxiety disorder.

And while anxiety disorders come in different forms, they all share a common thread: extreme and irrational worry and fear that linger.

Over time, anxiety disorders impact physical and mental health by fueling a state of chronic stress and even triggering psychosomatic events, such as panic attacks. At this level, anxiety can be debilitating, interfering with someone’s ability to enjoy and function in everyday life.

And its prevalence is growing. By some estimates, almost 4 percent of adults worldwide struggle with chronic anxiety. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization reports that in light of the recent global pandemic, rates of anxiety and depression increased by 25 percent, and particularly among adolescents.

These are the most common forms of anxiety disorder:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder is the persistent worry and feeling of dread about the future. It often manifests in a sense of restlessness, feeling on edge, difficulty sleeping, inability to control worried thoughts, racing mind, and trouble concentrating. It can sometimes lead to headaches and digestive problems and can last for months or even years.
  • Social anxiety disorder is intense self-consciousness and fear of judgment by others. People with this kind of anxiety may worry that others are looking at them and avoid making eye contact with people they don’t know. In social situations, they may experience physical sensations such as trembling, pounding heart, sweating, and stomachaches. The fear can be so intense that it can impact someone’s ability to go to work, attend school, or engage in other social functions.
  • Panic disorder is defined as having frequent and unexpected panic attacks, when there is no clear danger or trigger.  When they occur, the person may feel intense fear, a sense of being out of control, and feelings of impending doom. They may experience physical sensations including racing heart, difficulty breathing, sweating, trembling, tingling, and even chest pain.
  • Phobias, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health, fall under the umbrella of anxiety disorders due to the excessive nature of the fear and the intense anxiety they provoke. They include specific phobias, such as fear of flying, heights, or getting shots; as well as agoraphobia, or fear of being in enclosed or wide-open spaces, or in crowds; and separation anxiety; among others.

How Mindfulness Can Help Ease An Anxious Mind

As a lifestyle practice, mindfulness meditation is one of the most valuable tools we can employ to train our minds to unwind from stress, build inner strength, and cultivate mental calm and clarity.

And numerous studies show that mindfulness is also an incredibly effective tool for managing common feelings of anxiety.

There are lots of benefits to developing a mindfulness practice, but when it comes to anxiety, it can be helpful in a few specific ways:

  • Mindfulness cultivates present-moment awareness
  • Mindfulness disrupts the stress response
  • Mindfulness helps to “rewire” how our body and mind respond to stressful situations

Answered by Experts

Shamash Alidina

How Much Anxiety Is Normal?

Talk · 3 mins

Mindfulness Keeps us in the Present Moment

A hallmark of any kind of anxiety is worry about the future. What will happen, how those people will perceive me, what the test results will reveal, etc.

This future-oriented concern is the opposite of being in the present moment. And keeping us in the present moment is mindfulness’ superpower.

But, why does being present matter so much?

Because the present moment is all we have. The past is gone and the future hasn’t happened.

The here-and-now is where we can get a clear measure of what’s really happening. We then have the ability to take appropriate action based on that information.

Typically, and especially when we’re under stress, our minds are anywhere but in the present moment. We project into the future, imagine the worst-case scenario, ruminate about the past, fantasize about what we could have said, and so on. And these thoughts, or the stories we tell ourselves, are colored by our experiences, and especially traumatic events; self-perception; unconscious bias; and more.

In other words, there’s the thing (actual event, circumstance, comment), and then there’s what we tell ourselves about the thing. And they are often quite different.

Shifting your perspective to the present moment can be game-changing, particularly when anxious thoughts and feelings begin to build.

For example, instead of letting the mind spin off into worry about what could happen, mindfulness works by asking, What’s here? with nonjudgmental awareness.

And instead of trying to push away “negative” or strong emotions, or making ourselves wrong for having them, we offer ourselves self-compassion.

As a result of these mindfulness tools, we create a wider, more accepting space to simply observe thoughts and emotions as they arise without engaging with them.

When we meet our thoughts and feelings from this place, we’re not so caught up in their grip. We no longer take them too seriously or personally. We hold them lightly, and we don’t react strongly to them.

Calm Your Nerves

Cory Muscara

Relax Into Being Present

Cory Muscara · 5-30 mins

How Mindfulness Interrupts the Stress Response

When we’re facing a challenging or unknown situation, and anxious feelings build, mindfulness works by helping us to access that deeper, calmer center inside.

Breathing deeply, we offer ourselves a bit of a break—a small pause. Following the breath as it moves into the body, we guide our minds away from anxious thoughts and instead anchor our awareness in physical sensation. We do this again and again.

Soon our heart rate and respiration begin to slow, our blood pressure lowers, and our muscles relax. We can breathe more fully and feel more steady. Our perspective broadens a bit, and we gain access to our higher executive functions, including a greater perspective and more reasoned decision-making skills.

Try It for Yourself

Cory Muscara

De-Stress

Breathing · 3-11 mins

Rewiring Your Mind For Greater Calm And Clarity

The human mind is adaptable, or neuroplastic—we can train our minds to respond in more positive ways over time. When you repeatedly practice mindfulness and train in letting go of unhelpful thoughts, you activate new neural pathways that can become your “new normal.” These healthier neural pathways gradually become more natural and normal over time, until eventually they can become a trait.

This neuroplastic nature of the mind means that we can train ourselves to ease our anxiety, respond skillfully to challenges, and make wiser decisions. Mindfulness also helps us gradually become less reactive overall, and more compassionate toward ourselves. This is one of the promises of mindfulness-based therapy.

For these reasons and more, mindfulness meditation has also been shown to be an effective treatment for easing clinical anxiety and depression. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a program created by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 and now internationally recognized as an effective non-pharmacological support for general anxiety disorder and panic disorder, as well as the management of chronic pain, is just one clinical application of mindfulness. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, an offshoot of MBSR, has been successfully used in the management of chronic depression.

But no mindfulness exercise is an overnight solution, and on its own, may not be enough to manage extreme experiences of anxiety. Please consult with your healthcare professional if you feel you need more help.

We can’t stop the waves of life from coming, but with mindfulness, we can learn to meet them in more healthy and positive ways.

Reset Your Mind

Rhonda Magee

STOP for Self-Compassion

Micro Practice · 3 mins

5 Ways to Work with Anxious Thoughts and Feelings

  1. Take a mindful break. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, mindfulness is available. Tune into your breathing or to any physical sensation. Do a progressive muscle relaxation. You might even try turning your full awareness to notice every aspect of something you’re eating or drinking.
  2. Focus on one task. Like taking a mindful break, focusing on one task is an accessible mindfulness technique that can be done wherever you are. It also can help ease anxiety symptoms like racing thoughts. The key is to lightly hold your awareness on one action, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant. Fully immerse yourself in the experience, engaging all of your senses in the process of performing the activity. Buttering your toast, shaving your legs, washing the dishes, organizing your desk. And when your mind wanders, gently guide it back.
  3. Try mindful walking or running. Not only will you be supporting your physical health, but pairing exercise and mindfulness is shown to be an effective way to reduce stress and help calm anxiety.
  4. Go outside. Shifting your physical perspective, and particularly to the outdoors, can help disrupt spinning or anxious thoughts and “move” some of the energy of the stress response building in your body. Researchers have found that as little as 10 minutes spent outside in nature, is enough to show positive changes in physiological markers of stress, including heart rate and cortisol levels, as well as improvements in mood and attention.
  5. Do a mindful breathing exercise. A cornerstone of mindfulness meditation, mindful breathing can help you feel more grounded and in control when anxious thoughts and feelings begin to build by disrupting biologically acute stress responses.

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