By eM Life Instructor Kelly Barron
A friend of mine recently complained that she was so worried about a work project she couldn’t sleep. Up, wide-eyed late at night, my friend’s mind spun like a top with negative “what if” scenarios about how her boss might receive her project. A bout of insomnia is never pleasant. But more than a good night’s sleep my friend wanted to know how she could quell her anxious feelings.
She’s not alone. All of us experience anxiety – whether it’s about work, family and friends or navigating morning rush hour. In small doses, anxiety serves a valuable purpose. It helped our ancestors prepare for threats to their survival. And it’s often the prod that gets us to meet a work deadline or make it to the airport on time.
For many of us, though, anxiety is a guest who overstays their welcome.
Our minds often seem overburdened with repetitive thoughts about a fearful future and our bodies tire from the physical exhaustion anxious feelings create. Whether anxiety arises during brief periods of stress or whether it’s more frequent and intense, not knowing how to work with our anxious feelings compounds our stress.
While there are many therapeutic approaches for managing anxiety, one way of working with anxiousness is mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the awareness that arises when we pay attention to the present moment with an attitude of openness, curiosity, and non-judgment. When we’re mindful we’re aware of our present moment experience, including our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. Bringing our attention to the present moment and becoming aware of what’s happening when it’s happening helps us work with anxiety in a number of ways.
Anxiety often arises in the anticipation of experiencing something fearful in the future. My friend’s thoughts about how her boss might negatively react to her project, for example, were projections about a future that may or may not happen. By bringing our attention to the present moment we can interrupt the cycle of worrisome thoughts about the future and redirect our attention to what’s happening now. Also, by becoming more aware of our anxiety the moment it arises we can choose how to best respond to the thoughts and feelings that are bothering us rather than react and perpetuate our worry.
Mindfulness won’t completely get rid of our anxiety. It’s natural to be anxious at times. But the more mindful we become, the more we can weaken our habit of worry and learn to steady ourselves in the midst of our unease.
Mindful Perspectives for Managing Anxiety
If your anxiety is intense or long lasting, it may be worthwhile to seek the help of a professional. With or without additional help, here are three mindful perspectives and practices for managing anxiety and help you cope the next time you feel anxious.
1. Recognize and Allow
When we feel anxious, we often want to get rid of our feelings. That’s a natural reaction to anything that’s unpleasant. And, anxiety, with its whirling thoughts and racing heartbeat, is certainly unpleasant. But once an emotion arises there’s little we can do to forcibly remove it. It’s a little bit like trying to push an elephant up a hill. It’s exhausting. Rather than becoming embattled with our anxiety, a mindful approach is to invite some self-compassion into the moment and recognize that anxiety – for better and for worse – is a part of being human. Every one of us has felt anxious. And while it may be counterintuitive, acknowledging and even naming our anxiety as it arises allows the feeling to move more freely through us. It can even help our brains respond better to our emotional upset. Researchers at UCLA, for example, found that when study participants named their emotions the part of the brain that’s in charge of the stress response quieted. The next time you feel anxious, name the feeling, saying quietly to yourself: “Anxiety. Anxiety.” Doing so will help you settle and give you space to choose how best to respond.
2. Soothe Your Nervous System
In it’s purest form; anxiety is a call to action. When we feel anxious, a stress response gets triggered in our body that helps us avoid danger. The trouble is that in today’s fast-paced, hyper-connected world our nervous systems can be easily triggered to perceive threats that aren’t particularly life-threatening. Giving a presentation at work might prompt performance anxiety as well as sweaty palms and an increased heart rate, but it won’t kill you. When anxiety arises, notice how your body feels. Do you feel queasy? Is your chest tight? If so, take a few deep, purposeful breaths and extend the exhalation. Doing so signals to your nervous system that whatever is happening isn’t life-threatening. Mindfully shifting your attention to your breath also can take your mind off the thoughts that might be fueling your anxiousness. If your breath feels too uncomfortable, shifting attention to sensations in your feet or your hands also can invite more ease into your body and redirect your attention away from anxious thoughts.
3. Everything is Always Changing
When I teach kids about mindfulness and difficult emotions, I do an exercise with Alka-Seltzer tablets. I instruct the kids to write a difficult emotion on the tablet with a marker. Then, I tell them to drop the tablet in a clear glass of water and observe what happens to the tablet. The kids usually make the connection quickly. While difficult emotions like anxiety feel solid and everlasting, they’re just like Alka-Seltzer tablets – fizzing, bubbling, rising to the surface and, ultimately, fading away. Sometimes anxiety stays with us longer than we’d like. But knowing that everything is always changing can be a safe harbor in the storm of anxious feelings. Understanding that anxious feelings eventually change and that there are times when we’re not anxious helps us withstand moments of stress. It also might invite us to become more curious about the circumstances that prompt us to feel anxious, giving us insight into how we might work with our worry when it arises.
Mindfulness and Meditation for Managing Anxiety
Now is the perfect time to experience the many life-changing benefits of mindfulness. Sign up for eM Life’s free One Percent Challenge, dedicate 14 minutes a day to our live mindfulness classes and earn rewards for yourself and others by supporting a select charity. Sign up anytime between January 1st – January 31st to participate and discover how mindfulness can help you better manage the anxious moments of life.
Mindfulness isn’t just for managing anxiety. Read our blog on the One Percent Challenge to learn the various life-changing benefits of mindfulness and meditation, read on the charities we are supporting, and the rewards you can earn – like a 1:1 session with an expert eM Life instructor, a Garmin vivomove® HR Smartwatch, and much more!
About the Author
Kelly Barron. M.A., is a certified mindfulness facilitator, at UCLA and writer. She teaches mindfulness for UCLA’s Mindfulness Research Center as well as for corporations, schools and private groups. Kelly has worked as a mindfulness teacher with eM Life since 2016. She came to learn the value of mindfulness as a deadline-driven journalist. Now, she’s passionate about sharing mindfulness with others to help them live with more ease, clarity, and joy. You can learn more about Kelly and read her blog at kellybarron.com.Sample Text
Also published on Medium.