We all feel a little anxious at times. It’s a normal reaction to the more stressful events of our lives, such as a job interview, a driving test or say, a global pandemic.
You may notice a few physical responses, like the sensation of ‘butterflies in your tummy’ or your heart beating faster than usual. But these feelings and responses tend to pass by in time.
However, when your anxious thoughts become excessive—when your problems and worries keep running around in your head, growing bigger and bigger and more upsetting—this can lead to feelings of anxiety that take hold and can feel overwhelming and this is where mindfulness can be really helpful.
Mindfulness can help us to unhook from our anxious thoughts and calm our nervous system. It teaches us to rest our attention in the present moment and let go of being pulled around by unhelpful thoughts and emotions.
In this post, I explain how and why anxiety grips us, as well as how mindfulness helps us unwind it and reconnects us to our calm centre. I also share a simple but powerful technique that is very effective for managing anxious thoughts and feelings in everyday life as well as a free meditation you can practice with.
The reason we experience anxiety has to do with the way our mind evolved. For most of the last 200,000 years of human evolution humans lived as hunter gatherers in tribes. It’s only been a very short time humans have lived the way we do today, so our minds still operate in much the same way they did in those caveman days.
In the caveman days life was very dangerous and difficult so to stay alive our ancestors had to constantly be on the lookout for danger, threats and problems to be solved. The humans who were constantly anxious, alert and on the lookout for danger were the ones who survived and passed on their genes.
Now even though we live in a much more safe and comfortable world today, this mind we’ve inherited is still on the lookout for threats and problems all the time. Even if everything is ok you might notice that it tends to constantly ruminate, worry and fixate on problems. But now instead of worrying about sabre tooth tigers or attacks from rival clans we worry about our relationships, our health or our careers.
How Our Thoughts Generate Anxiety
When the mind casts itself into the future and plays out ‘what if’ scenarios or imagines what might go wrong, when it ‘catastrophises’ (that is, it predicts bad outcomes that haven’t and will likely never eventuate) our bodies respond to those thoughts as if the threat were real. The result, we feel stressed, worried and anxious.
Now this can happen when you’re sitting in a perfectly peaceful room or garden where you’re safe and everything is actually ok in that particular moment.
But if we can begin to recognise these thoughts when they arise, identifying them as just that – thoughts – and not something we have to take seriously or buy into, they lose their power to pull us into emotional reactivity. In this way we unhook ourselves from our anxious thoughts and can be more calm and at ease in ourselves.
Constant stress, worry and fixation on problems may have been a great survival strategy in the past, but these days it’s unhelpful, painful and debilitating to be constantly stuck in that mode of being. But it’s important to note and really take this in…
Anxiety Is Not Your Enemy
Everything your mind is doing is in an attempt to protect and serve you. It’s trying to help you stay alive. So all that worry that can feel really unpleasant comes from a place of care. Your mind is your friend and anxiety is not an enemy.
Anxiety is a normal healthy emotion. But when our mind gets stuck in it, it’s just a little bit like the byproduct of an of out of date software program running in the mind. When we see this clearly we can learn to befriend our experience and work with it in new ways.
We don’t need to try to get rid of anxiety. There’s no way that we can get rid of anxiety totally because it’s a natural part of being human. But what we can do is shift our relationship to it and so that it no longer becomes debilitating for us.
Mindfulness is a tried and tested and evidence based path to unwind and transform these old software patterns of the mind that cause us stress, anxiety and suffering. With regular practice you become a more calm, kind, wise and resilient person. An island of sanity and peace in an increasingly frantic world.
How Mindfulness Eases Anxiety
One of the things mindfulness teaches us is how to step back from unhelpful thoughts and feelings—including the ones that cause us to feel anxiety.
Through mindfulness we learn to relate to our thoughts and feelings both compassionately and non-reactively. When we meet our thoughts and feelings from a place of calm, kindness and balance, we are no longer so caught in their grip.
When also begin to see and understand that alot of the time it’s just our thoughts causing these anxious feelings, and that we don’t have to take those thoughts seriously or listen to them, so they begin to lose their power over us.
Accessing Your Calm Centre
One of the ways that mindfulness meditation helps us to reduce anxiety is that it teaches us to access our calm centre.
Imagine your mind is like a lake, where the waves at the surface are always changing. Sometimes the surface is fairly calm, but it can become tumultuous too when there are storms and strong winds. However, no matter what is happening on the surface, the depths of the lake remain untouched. There is a still, calm, deep place that is unaffected by anything that’s happening on the surface of the water.
Our thoughts and emotions are like the ever-changing surface of the lake. Sometimes things can feel calm and peaceful, but our thoughts and feelings can get very stormy and tumultuous too, especially when life throws stresses and challenges our way.
We often get caught up on the lake’s surface and tossed around by the currents and storms of our thoughts and emotions, but mindfulness trains us to let go of these thoughts and to access our depths – our calm centre. It is from this place of depth, inner strength, calm and clarity that we are able to respond to the waves of life with more wisdom, inner strength and skill.
The ‘Name It to Tame It’ Technique
Have you ever been so worried or anxious that you feel like you’re “losing your mind?”
This happens because the part of your brain that controls your ability to reason and think clearly and objectively can get hijacked when strong emotions like fear, anxiety or anger trigger the brain’s fight or flight response.
Early humans were exposed to the constant threat of being harmed or killed by wild animals or other tribes. To improve the chances of survival, the fight or-flight response evolved. It’s an automatic response to physical danger that allows you to react quickly without thinking.
When you feel threatened and afraid, a part of the brain called the amygdala automatically activates the fight-or-flight response by sending out signals to release stress hormones that prepare your body to fight or run away.
The amygdala can also disable the brain’s frontal lobes, the more evolved and what some refer to as the smart part of our brain. Now when this happens you can’t think clearly, make rational decisions, or control your responses. Control has been “hijacked” by the amygdala.
So of course fight or flight happens in response to direct threats but it can also be triggered by psychological threats – when we think worrying or anxious thoughts.
But there is a powerful way that we can train in calming the amygdala and bringing the frontal lobes back online. We do this by mentally naming what we’re experiencing. As psychiatrist Dan Siegel likes to say – we can—name it to tame it.
Research shows that by mentally noting or labelling difficult emotions you can experience up to a 50% reduction in the intensity of emotion. That applies to anxiety as well as any other emotion. Not only that but it brings the brain’s frontal lobes back online so that we can become less reactive and think more clearly again.
So it’s a really useful thing to be able to apply, not only in meditation but in daily life too – especially when anxiety arises.
By labelling an emotion in this way what we’re doing here is creating a little bit of mental space. Usually we get so caught up in and identified with an emotion that we lose perspective. By recognising anxiety when it arises and naming it, we create a space in which we can step back from the emotion and observe it in a different way.
Free Meditation: The ‘Name it to Tame it’ Technique
In the following free meditation I’ll guide you through this technique of mentally noting or naming your experience to strengthen your capacity to be non reactive and anchored in a deeper place within yourself, a place of wholeness, calm and ease.
Mental Noting Meditation (5 minutes)
Mental Noting Meditation (10 minutes)
I hope you found this post helpful. If you’d like some more support with easing anxiety, you find more resources on easing anxiety (including the meditations above) at Mindfulness.com
On Mindfulness.com we share daily video coaching as well as guided meditations each day. With daily practice you can develop the skills you need to become less anxious and more mentally strong. The daily experience on Mindfulness.com takes less than 15 minutes a day, but even with that small investment of your time I believe you’ll notice the quality of your life beginning to change.
If you have any comments or questions on easing anxiety during this challenging time please jot them in the comments section below. Wishing you ease, comfort and calm in the days to come dear friends.
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