Anxiety can be helpful in small doses to help us focus on what we need. When fear overwhelms us, it can be a problem.
Anxiety can be a good thing. It can make us take stock of what we are doing and our life situation. It can be a psychological trigger to take corrective action, repair damage, or dodge a danger. A certain amount of ants on our pants can be helpful in these ways. It’s an essential component of our motivation to make healthy changes.
When anxiety overwhelms us, it blocks our progress. The traditional contemplative tradition uses a metaphor of a pool (representing the brain), where anxious restlessness is the turbulent waters that lead to muddiness and a lack of clarity. We can’t see the world or ourselves accurately when anxiety is this high. To stop this chaos, we react and distort our perceptions. We are unable to relax and see clearly. Our ability to focus and be efficient in our daily lives is affected. To combat the threat, our brains release the stress hormone cortisol. We feel drained.
Anxiety can be a good thing. It can make us take stock of what we are doing and our life situation. It can be a psychological trigger to take corrective action, repair damage, or dodge danger. When anxiety overwhelms us, we become blocked.
Just Along for The Ride
Imagine you are on a bus and running late for a necessary appointment. Imagine you’re on a bus and are late for an important meeting. Have a new route, many stops, and a packed bus. Barely make any progress. We can get there quicker by walking.
The driver replies, “How many stops are there before mine?” You tell him not to worry as your stop is just three stops ahead. Your blood pressure and thoughts are heightened when you see the driver waiting for an older man to walk up to the bus slowly.
You ask, “How long until we get there?” “I can’t miss my meeting.”
The driver glanced at you without saying a word in the rearview mirror.
The passenger beside you says, “We all have somewhere to go.”
You feel your heartbeat at the temples. Sweat is escaping from all the usual spots.
Imagine this bus as whatever “vehicle” you are in on any given day. It is not yours. You are a passenger in almost every situation.
Does your increased blood pressure or rush of thoughts make the bus move faster? Can you get there sooner?
Imagine that you are trying to meditate on this bus. Imagine the everyday experience of meditating and hoping to “get anywhere” in your session – a happier life that will manifest before the session ends. Or your meditation is a cacophony of monkey-on-methamphetamine thoughts and images. You may notice your eyes pop open during these sites to check the timer or clock.
Inner Critic and Rumination
The destructive nature of anxious thoughts is becoming more evident in research. Rumination (or passive and repetitive thinking about negative emotions ) has been shown to predict the chronic nature of depressive disorders and anxiety.
Rumination is a self-talk that uses physical and mental agitation to fuel it and as its output.
As a clinical psychologist, I have been trained to identify and treat the harmful mental habit of repeated and negative inner chatter, which irritates our bodies and minds from the inside. It’s not only my patients that meditate; it’s also me. I repeatedly tell myself (hypothetically, of course) that I am a “failure,” as a dad for texting while my son was performing and or destroying a future me as a speaker because of an incident with an open zipper during a presentation last week. Rumination is the self-talk that fuels and produces physical and mental agitation. Ruminative worrying is harmful to our mental clarity and well-being.
How to Deal with Anxious Thoughts
Researchers have identified a part of the solution to anxiety. In 2010, 271 undergraduate nonclinical students were asked to report their levels of self-compassion and other factors such as rumination, worry, or fear. The results showed that those with higher self-compassion levels were less likely to experience depression or anxiety. Data showed that self-compassion might buffer the effects of rumination. We can unhook ourselves from introspection by practicing mindfulness.
When we don’t care for ourselves, we create imbalances contributing to anxiety. Our bodies and minds are filled with anxiety-causing ingredients when we act unethically. As teenagers or adults, when our parents said to us, “clean up your act,” they weren’t just making a casual swipe at our bad behavior. They were (perhaps accidentally) aiming for our very well-being.
Anxiety is our “check engine” light on the psychophysiological dashboard. It tells us that the system is out of balance. We should not fear agitation; we should instead see it as an opportunity to practice mindfulness.
Mindful Breathing for Anxiety
- Start this practice by acknowledging that anxiety is present. Give a slight nod of acknowledgment to your thoughts, images, and feelings of worry.
- Rest by focusing on the sensations of your breath. Allow your attention to gently drift onto the place where you can feel the breath. You can focus on the nose, belly, or even your toes if you are more agile.
- Inhale deeply into your belly to penetrate the anxiety you feel in BOTH body and mind. Visualize the breath moving into and through restlessness. Breathing in and through the pressure is more effective than trying to force it away. Breathing slowly and deeply in the belly is important because anxiety can cause us to live quickly at the chest level, which causes more stress.
Breathing slowly and deeply in the belly is essential, as anxiety can cause us to live quickly at the chest level, which causes more stress.
- Acknowledge anxiety as you exhale. Do not try to push the stress away with a sigh or exasperated puffing. Continue to breathe slowly and deliberately. As if using a feather, note the sensations and words-images.
- Continue to follow the breath. Circulate between the penetration of the awareness space with the inhale and acknowledging what is left on the exhale.
- Do not force or control. Slow, deep breathing will help you to penetrate the anxiety. Allow your awareness to permeate and surround these thoughts, feelings, and images.
- After your meditation, take stock of what you have left. What can be seen, felt, and acknowledged “behind the anxiety”? Care for the things that need tending.