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Mindfulness for Anxiety

5 Mindfulness Tips to Stop the Anxiety Cycle

By Sofia Alvarez, Psy.D

Here are 5 mindfulness tips to stop the anxiety cycle from taking control.

  • Notice Your Inner Experiences  – view these as just experiences moment to moment as opposed to what they “should be” or what you assume it to be.
  • Remove JudgementRather than getting caught in thoughts/feelings, notice them as just a thought/feeling, removing judgment and adding compassion to your observations (i.e. “I’m having the thought that I will fail.”)
  • Observe Your Reactions – Notice your reaction to your emotions, such as urges to avoid, “fixating” on a thought, or how your attention narrows to a stressor.
  • Accept Things as They Are – resisting an experience begets suffering. Acceptance does not mean approval nor resignation.
  • Learn To Meditate – find a meditation or breathing technique that works for you and practice each day.

Read below how Brenda utilizes these to break a long-standing pattern of worry.

mindfulness for anxiety new directions counselingRushing, Anxious, Imagining it to be Bad

Brenda was rushing to finish the chores when her husband said they had been invited to one of his co-worker’s dinner and cocktail parties. Almost immediately, Brenda felt anxious, coupled with rapid thoughts: “How am I supposed to fit in with executives? What would I even say? They will all think I’m a spaz. It’s going to be terrible. I know I’m going to have a panic attack.”

Brenda continued to think of worst-case scenarios and hypothetical situations. She imagined conversations and concluded she did not want to go. Brenda’s husband gestured to capture her attention and reported he already accepted the invitation. Brenda felt dread, yet not wanting to disappoint her husband, she agreed to go.

Anxious Thoughts Separate Us from the Moment

The remainder of the evening she found herself trying to push her thoughts and feelings away to no avail. Brenda felt guilty. While criticizing herself for not being calmer about a social event, she thought “I wish I wasn’t so anxious. I shouldn’t worry so much. I’m being such a dummy. I want to stop thinking so much.” She felt frustrated that she could not control her emotions. No matter how hard she tried, they returned with more force, increasing her distress. She decided to play it safe and declined the invitation. However, after declining the invitation she began to worry about her marriage. Will her husband judge her for not being more outgoing or a better wife.

mindfulness for anxiety relaxes - new directions counselingMindfulness for Anxiety

Brenda chose therapy, recognizing the conflict between her life and her worry. She was introduced to mindfulness, which she learned is a way of being aware, present, non-judgmental, and intentional. She also learned that mindfulness allows her to experience life more fully. It helps her respond to feelings with flexibility and more acceptance.

Brenda had a deadline approaching for work and recognized her familiar, anxious response to work. She noticed her heart beating faster, her breath shortened, and she felt tension throughout her body. Before she knew it, she braced for the worst, lost in thought about how her project might go wrong. Before long she realized this was an opportunity to practice mindfulness in order to gain understanding and respond more flexibly. Rather than turning away from her emotions through escape, she turned her attention to her anxiety.

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She noticed she was experiencing the worst as though it had already happened. Despite no real threat, she lost touch with the innate peace of the moment. She also noticed how fused her thoughts had become, when indeed they were just thoughts, and not reality. Her urge to judge herself for feeling anxious and self-criticism only increased the anxiety. She also realized how her attention narrowed to what was making her anxious. The catastrophic thoughts removed her from the what was going on in the present. Brenda became aware of how the desire to control her emotions was a paradox that created more distress. By paying bare attention to feelings, she realized her anxiety conveyed how much her job mattered. The alternative message was “I value being a good employee and providing for my family”. Her anxiety told her she wants to protect these values. By noticing these feelings and her habitual response, she also became aware she did not have to respond to a deadline with such heightened anxiety. She saw her habitual thoughts were just thoughts, which distracted her from what she needed to do.

Adding Mindful Attention and Compassion

Brenda allowed her attention to expand to what could go right, her capabilities, helpful information, that she had control in the present moment. She attended to the idea of her usual stellar performance at work, and even if she missed the deadline, things would likely turn out okay for her job and life in general. She added a gentle compassion to her experience of anxiety and judgment, which in turn soothed her.

In the latter scenario, Brenda utilized mindfulness to connect with uncomfortable emotions, thoughts, and internal experiences long enough to gain insight. Mindfulness allows people to befriend emotions, break from habitual ways of responding, and live a life congruent with their values. By bringing gentle and honest curiosity to her experience, Brenda broke the cycle of fear, avoidance, brief respite, and an unfulfilling, limited life to one that is more fulfilling. Mindfulness allows people to tolerate difficult emotions and circumstances and incorporates acceptance. People can use mindfulness to even welcome things out of control and things that cannot be changed, such as the past or future.