How to Deal With Anxiety: Can Mindfulness Meditation Help You?
Did you know that in New Zealand 1 in 4 people will suffer from an anxiety disorder in their lifetime? In fact, at any one time, 15% of the population will have been diagnosed with some form of serious anxiety. Given recent events, I wouldn't be surprised if these numbers have spiked since last recorded.
So in this blog, I explore how to deal with anxiety using mindfulness, plus common pitfalls to avoid and tips to help you get started.
Feelings of anxiety come in many shapes and forms.
Most of the time the sensations are transient, that is, they ebb and flow over time. They are usually linked to a certain event, such as the uncertain twists and turns of the unfolding global pandemic, meeting an important deadline, speaking at an event, or dealing with conflict at work, to name a few.
Feeling anxious or worried about what could potentially go wrong in our lives or in the world around us is a hard-wired part of the human condition.
This high-alert fight or flight threat response kept our ancient human ancestors hypervigilant against any threat to themselves or those they care about, thus ensuring the survival of our species.
However, this need by our human brain to constantly be scanning the environment for threat, can easily lead to escalating loops of worry and anxious thinking.
It can feel like the brain and body are constantly on high alert, and our perception of the seriousness of an event can become distorted. This can be debilitating, possibly trigger panic attacks and seriously impact our mental health and quality of life.
Can being mindful and practicing meditation reduce anxiety?
Many people who experience waves of worry or anxious thoughts find techniques such as meditation, yoga and mindfulness incredibly helpful.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to activate part of the brain's prefrontal cortex involved in emotional regulation.
The prefrontal cortex, also known as the “executive control” part of the brain, helps us to witness anxious thoughts, sensations, and emotions without being overwhelmed by them.
In other studies meditators have shown a lower fight or flight threat response to anxious thoughts during meditation, and further studies have shown that these benefits transferred to non-meditative states.
That means the state of non-reactivity becomes a ‘hardwired’ trait and helps us to better regulate stress and worry, even when we are not meditating.
This research is very encouraging, however anxious thoughts often come with physical tension and other intense sensations that can feel very unpleasant to focus on, so why on earth would we want to be mindful of them?
What if the last place I want to be when I’m anxious is ‘in the moment’?
Anxious thoughts often come with physical tension and other intense sensations that can feel very unpleasant to focus on, so why on earth would we want to ‘be in the moment'!
As mindfulness teacher Timothea Godard mentioned in a recent podcast - in this scenario “The present moment is not bliss, it's hell!"
In this case (and in learning how to deal with anxiety), it's really important to have a range of mindful techniques up your sleeve, so you can choose the right type of mindfulness meditation to support your feelings of anxiety.
For some, sitting down and trying to be still and focus on the breath may feel like an impossible task during moments of high anxiety.
When we become skilful in a range of mindful techniques, we can learn to trust our own authority on the best course of action when dealing with intense sensations during meditation.
Watching anxious feelings ebb and flow as we sit and meditate might be one option, choosing to stand and do some gentle stretching or go for a walk might be another option. There is a wisdom and compassion element at play here.
“There is so much to be learnt when we stay with unpleasant sensations and practice compassionate non-reactivity, and there is so much to be learnt by choosing to do something else to try to alleviate some of our unpleasant sensations. Only you can be the judge of what’s best for you at any moment, based on your own experience.”
How to Deal With Anxiety: 5 Mindful Tips to Help You Work With the Physical Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety
Mindfulness is not a silver bullet, but when it is done skilfully it can be incredibly helpful to deal with anxiety.
1. Develop the skill of feeling, not ‘fuelling’ your anxious worry.
This is a delicate balance between not suppressing or denying how you feel, as this has an impact on our mental health, but not overly analysing this either with thoughts such as:
"Why am I feeling like this? I don’t want to feel like this, people will see I’m anxious and judge me, how long will this last for? What if it doesn’t go away? What if I can’t get any sleep, how will that impact X, Y, and Z tomorrow?"
If you want to learn how to deal with anxiety, notice what you feel in your body. Stay with that, if you can, rather than your spiraling thoughts. Check out our blog on this topic.
2. Practice not resisting waves of anxious thoughts and feelings
In my own experience, sometimes I find it helpful to just let the physical sensations of anxiety do what they want. I might say to myself, ‘right anxiety, do your worst, go for it!’
Funnily enough, it will normally shift and change, and reduce in intensity. I noticed that it was my strong resistance to feeling anxious that was actually making things worse.
Jelena Kecmanovic, clinical psychologist describes being anxious as like getting into quicksand — the more you fight it, the deeper you sink.
“What we resist, persists.” Carl Jung
3. Give yourself a break
Acknowledge that feelings of anxiety can seriously suck, and sometimes leave us incredibly powerless, distressed, and in physical and emotional pain.
Why not accept that this is the reality of the situation, not downplayed, not overhyped?
With this kind of acceptance, compassion naturally arises. The only thing that makes sense is to be gentle with yourself, caring, kind, supportive, and attentive to your pain. This is not sappy or indulgent, it’s actually been proven as a powerful way to transform our reactions to pain and illness.
4. Engage with good natured curiosity
The idea here is rather than getting caught in worrying loops about how bad things are, deliberately move the attention to what you are noticing in the body, and explore these sensations. Where are they most vivid?
Are they hot/cold? Sharp/dull? More on one side than the other?
In his book Unwinding Anxiety, Dr. Judson Brewer explains that curiosity about our anxiety symptoms can create a feeling of expansiveness and agency that can be a useful alternative to feelings of constriction, tightness, fear, and worry.
5. Know when to ask for help
Experiencing some anxiety is part of life.
It's okay for you to learn how to deal with anxiety yourself, but, if it is so strong that it interferes with you being able to carry out your normal day-to-day life, it is worth seeking further help.
Mindfulness practices should not be a replacement for getting professional help if things feel like they are getting worse.
When people have a history of trauma, sometimes meditation practice may put them in touch with those memories and emotions. This can sometimes feel overwhelming, particularly at first, and all the more reason to work with a professional as you explore mindfulness as a tool to help.
Chances are, we either know someone suffering from serious anxiety or we are feeling it ourselves right now.
Mindfulness practice can be incredibly helpful with how to deal with anxiety.
If you wish to explore this further, consider getting in touch with a suitably qualified teacher who adheres to global teaching standards. They will have the skill to work with a full range of mental health conditions, and ensure practices are tailored to meet individual needs. Group sessions can also be held at your work.
Tips to explore if mindfulness is right for your team or workplace are shared here.