Mindfulness has become a popular practice in recent years, and you’ve probably heard of it. What you might not know about mindfulness is that it’s not just about spirituality and meditation. There is a large evidence base that supports the claim that mindfulness is an effective intervention for anxiety and depression.
So how, exactly, are mindfulness and anxiety related? How can you harness the power of mindfulness to reduce your anxiety symptoms? Here’s everything you need to know to get started.
How Can an Anxiety Diagnosis Affect You?
When you are facing a diagnosable anxiety disorder, it isn’t just your thoughts and feelings that are affected — it’s your biology, too. Symptoms of anxiety activate your sympathetic nervous system, which causes your body to enter into the fight/flight/freeze response, even when there’s no real danger present. Some symptoms of anxiety include:
- Excessive and disproportionate worrying
- Physical symptoms, like a racing heart or sweating
- Trouble concentrating
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Muscle tension
Therapy can help with all of these symptoms, but there are things you can do for yourself, too. A practice called mindfulness has been found to be very helpful for reducing anxiety, and you can start practicing it in your home today.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is an ancient practice that has been used for centuries in Eastern spiritual traditions like Buddhism. In the 1960s, Western teachers studied the practice of mindfulness to bring it back to the West and started applying it to the area of psychology. It’s now considered a secular practice in the West, and you don’t need to be a Buddhist (or religious at all!) to benefit from it.
In essence, mindfulness is just the practice of “being here now”. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of the first psychologists to bring mindfulness to the West. He defines mindfulness as: “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”
So what does it mean, exactly, to pay attention “on purpose”? Many people think of mindfulness as only being practiced during sitting meditation, But you can “pay attention on purpose” in every moment of your life. Paying attention means that when you’re washing the dishes, you’re only washing the dishes. Your mind is where your body is. Your mind isn’t worrying about anything other than this present moment. It’s entirely focused on what you’re doing right now, which is washing the dishes.
So often, our bodies are in one place but our mind is in another. When we practice mindfulness, we seek to be 100% present exactly where we are.
How Can Mindfulness Help with Anxiety?
But does mindfulness really work? you might be wondering. It sounds nice, but will it do anything for my anxiety?
Decades of research have shown that mindfulness is incredibly effective for lowering stress and anxiety. Dr. Kabat-Zinn created a structured mindfulness program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Multiple studies have shown that MBSR is an effective intervention for anxiety. Other mindfulness-based practices, like mindfulness meditation or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, have also been found to be effective for anxiety. Mindfulness is also helpful for depression, which often comes along with an anxiety diagnosis.
When you live with an anxiety disorder, your worries and thoughts often start spiraling. Using mindfulness, you can learn to be present with your worries without judgment. When you learn to accept the way you feel in the present moment, you’re less likely to get caught up in the worry. You hold the awareness that it’s just a worry, and see the truth that worries aren’t always the truth.
We also get lost in the present or the future when we have anxiety. For example, you may be worried about an upcoming event, or ruminating over a mistake you made in the past. When you practice mindfulness, you stay in the present moment. You realize that right now, you’re simply where you are, reading this article. Nothing bad is happening right now. You can take your mind out of the past and the future, and bring it back to this moment, right now.
Remember that when you feel stressed or anxious, your sympathetic nervous system is in control, which causes all sorts of biological changes. When you practice mindfulness meditation, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system — which makes you feel more relaxed. You let your body know that you’re not in danger. In this way, mindfulness meditation biologically cancels out the effects of anxiety on your body.
Mindfulness and Anxiety: How to Get Started
Practicing mindfulness is simple. To get started, all you need to do is to fully and intentionally focus on what you’re doing right now in the present moment. Although the instructions are simple, this is harder than it sounds — so here are some more specific practices you can start with.
Mindfulness of the breath
Many people start practicing mindfulness by focusing on their breathing. To begin, find a comfortable seated position. Don’t slouch, but don’t sit so straight that your back starts to hurt. You may sit on a cushion or on a chair. If you wish to, close your eyes. If not, find a soft gaze by slightly closing your eyes.
Now, bring your attention to your breath. You don’t need to alter or try to control your breath in any way. Don’t force yourself to breathe any deeper than you normally would. Simply pay attention to the breath. Some people anchor their awareness to their nostrils, where they can feel the air going in and out, but you might choose to be present with the air as it enters your throat or your lungs.
Simply keep your attention on your breath. Right now, you’re just sitting and breathing. When you notice that your mind is thinking about something else that’s not your breath, just notice it non-judgmentally. Notice that you’re thinking, but then bring your awareness back to your breath. You don’t need to force anything.
Practice this for several minutes each day to start feeling the benefits of mindfulness.
Another great opportunity to practice mindfulness is during meals. Often, we eat mindlessly. When you eat mindfully, you are fully present with each bite and flavor. Try practicing mindfulness each time you eat. Instead of reaching for the next bite while you still have food in your mouth, put your fork down. Chew your food thoughtfully, being completely present with every flavor you can detect.
Really try to taste the food, instead of just inhaling it mindlessly. Notice how full you’re getting as you take in more food. When you feel satisfied, stop eating. Mindful eating can help you bring the practice of mindfulness outside of your meditation sessions. It may be especially helpful if your anxiety diagnosis affects your eating habits.
When you notice how mindfulness and anxiety are related to the physical sensations in your body, it allows you to make choices about where to focus your attention. Having awareness can help you manage your anxiety better and do more of the things you love without being weighed down by worry.
Mental Health Center in San Antonio
If you need support for your anxiety, our team at Genesis Behavioral Health is here to walk with you every step of the way. Whether it’s helping you with mindfulness skills or offering another intervention, we can help you start tackling your anxiety and work towards recovery. Mindfulness and anxiety are interconnected. It’s all about what you choose to pay attention to. A mental health center like Genesis can help you think through how your anxiety is impacting you so that you are able to be more present in your day-to-day life.
If you’re in the San Antonio area, give our office a call today for more information on how we can help.