With half the world ordered to stay home in social isolation, a sudden economic collapse, and so much uncertainty ahead, it’s easy to let racing and anxious thoughts take over. It’s natural to think about all the what-if’s and worst-case scenarios. Natural, but not helpful.
People not accustomed to experiencing anxiety suddenly find themselves struggling to cope and wondering how to manage anxiety. Others who live with anxiety, panic, worry, and fear on a regular basis find themselves wondering how they’re going to simply make it through each day.
Learning how to manage anxiety & stress with mindfulness can help
Before we explore some of the ways mindfulness can help with anxiety and stress, let’s define what mindfulness really is.
Mindfulness is maintaining awareness of the present moment. This involves observing thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and our surrounding environment – with an attitude of acceptance and curiosity – not judgment.
But what does that mean – without judgment? It means not getting frustrated or anxious when you catch your mind wandering. It means not giving up when you feel like all you’re doing is catching your mind wandering. It means not labeling a thought or feeling as right or wrong – good or bad.
Just the act of catching your mind wandering is mindfulness! It’s a good thing. So, the more you do it, the easier it gets, and the quicker you will gain the benefits. In my experience, many people struggle with buying into this concept early on. That’s ok. You don’t need to believe it for it to begin working.
Mindful meditation is a practice that can help you learn to slow down racing thoughts, let go of negativity, and increase your present-moment awareness. Through this practice we begin to gain insight about ourselves. How we think. How we feel. Why we react to certain things. Why certain things upset us. Ultimately, we improve our ability to understand and cope with uncomfortable emotional experiences.
Often beginners make the mistake of trying to “clear the mind.” They quickly realize they can’t, and they get frustrated. They think, “This isn’t for me. I can’t do this.”
So, don’t try to clear your mind! That’s absurd. And it won’t work. The objective is to simply observe your thoughts – moment by moment – with an attitude of acceptance and curiosity.
The process is simple. Note, I said simple, not easy. For many, it will be hard in the beginning. It may feel a little uncomfortable or unnatural, or like it’s “not working.” This is perfectly normal. Realize that it will take your brain a while to get used to being “in the moment.” Especially if you’re already prone to stress and anxiety. Why? Because when we’re experiencing anxiety, our mind is somewhere in the future worrying, fearing, panicking. Not right here, right now.
Getting Started with Mindfulness for anxiety
One simple approach to mindful meditation is to use your breath as an anchor. Meaning you allow your breath to keep you anchored to the present moment. Focus and concentrate on your breath – the in-breath and the out-breath. Stay with your breath through the whole process and notice the sensations in your body as in you inhale and exhale. If it helps, think the phrase, “I’m breathing in” as you inhale and the phrase, “I’m breathing out” when you exhale. Whenever you find your thoughts drifting, gently bring your awareness to your breath. Remember, don’t get frustrated because catching your mind wandering is a sign it’s working. This simple exercise will help increase body awareness. If you struggle with anxiety or anger, improving your body awareness is a tremendously helpful to way to manage anxiety and anger.
Another helpful approach to mindful meditation is through visualization. Imagine a river or stream. Maybe one you’ve been to or one in your imagination. Notice all the sights, sounds, smells and sensations. The sun shining on your face. The coolness of the breeze on your skin. The smell of the air. The sound of wind through the trees and the gentle rushing of the water. Notice the branches of the trees hanging over the river. Notice the leaves on the branches and watch as they fall onto the water and gently float away.
Take a moment to fully immerse yourself engaging all of your senses while breathing slowing and deeply.
Now place your thoughts on those leaves and allow them float away. Try not to let yourself attach to any one thought. Do not judge or label the thought as good or bad. It’s simply a thought that floats away downstream out of sight. If you find yourself getting drawn in to a thought (and you will), bring your awareness back to your senses. The smells, sounds, sights of the river. Then observe the next thought the comes and place it on a leaf and watch if float away.
This exercise helps to create distance from your thought. It prevents you from getting pulled in by your thoughts, therefore reducing the emotional distress of problematic thoughts. When we experience anxiety, we’re typically get stuck on thoughts that are future-based without even realizing it. Improving your present moment awareness of your thoughts and your attachment to them, plays a huge role in reducing anxiety.
“I’ll get to it when I have some free time today” doesn’t work. Schedule time each day. It’s ideal to have a set time every day. Just like a bedtime routine helps send the message to the brain that it’s time to wind down, a scheduled time for mindful meditation will send the message to your brain that it’s time to be focused and present. Thus, making the process easier over time and more beneficial. Start small. Maybe 1-2 minutes. As that becomes easier, you can slowly increase the time. 10 minutes is great. 20 is ideal.
Find a quiet and comfortable space where you won’t be disturbed. It’s important to be as comfortable, but not so comfortable that you end up falling asleep (although this wouldn’t be the worst thing – just an indication you need more sleep). For some that means laying down, and for others, sitting in a chair. Do what feels best for you. There’s no right or wrong.
Use a Timer
This is a must. Otherwise you’ll be sitting wondering, “Has it been long enough?” “Am I done yet?” “I wonder how long its been.” Every phone has a timer. Use it. Set it and close your eyes and know that you don’t have to move or open your eyes until the timer goes off. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
Use An App
There are many free apps available (like Calm or Headspace) to help. My personal favorite is brain.fm which has many different types of ambient music including guided meditations. My recommendation is to try a bunch of different methods. First try without any artificial sounds. Then maybe white noise. Try some ambient music. Try a guided mediation if it helps. See what works best for you. Remember, there’s no right or wrong. Only what works for you.
The more you practice, the easier it will get, and the more effective it will become. A few minutes a day goes a long way. It might feel like you’re “just sitting and doing nothing” for a while. It’s easy to use this feeling as an opportunity to judge, and therefore talk yourself out of a significantly rewarding and beneficial new tool. Don’t.
A common (and incorrect) initial reaction to this is to think, “Great, so maybe I’ll be more mindful for a couple minutes while I do this, but that doesn’t help me the rest of my day.” This is wrong. It will. You will begin to notice moments in your day when you find yourself more aware. More present. The intentional practice begins to bleed into the rest of your day. And the more you do, the more you will reap the benefits of present moment awareness.
There is zero downside and tons of upside to mindfulness and mindful meditation. It doesn’t cost you anything and if you’re like many people right now, you have the time. Or you’re like me: still working full-time, and suddenly a stay-at-home parent and a homeschool teacher. But guess what? I still make time for it. Every day. Because it makes me much more effective in all those roles.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, panic, fear, and worry, it’s ok. Many are. If you need help coping, that’s ok too. We all do. Contact us today for a free consultation.
James Killian, LPC is the Principal Therapist & Owner of Arcadian Counseling in New Haven, CT where they specialize in helping over-thinkers, high achievers, and perfectionists take control and move From Surviving to Thriving.