Explore Anxiety with Mindfulness

Bob Stahl unpacks what anxiety actually is, how those who struggle with anxiety can harness the benefits of mindfulness, and offers a mindful writing exercise to reduce anxiety.

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Anxiety can range from mild to overwhelming. It can be brought on sporadically by various work or relationship issues or other life experiences. Or it may be a chronic state. You may already have sought assistance from a physician, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional, and you may be taking medications to help manage symptoms. You may have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or social anxiety disorder (SAD). In general, these diagnoses are made when symptoms become excessive, when anxiety arises with little or no provocation, or when anxiety reactions seem exaggerated in relation to the situations that bring them on.

If you struggle with anxious thoughts, worry, fearful anticipation of the future, or a sense of dread, mindfulness will be useful for you.

Anyone who struggles with anxiety can reap benefits from mindfulness and the practices offered here, regardless of diagnosis. If you struggle with anxious thoughts, worry, fearful anticipation of the future, or a sense of dread, mindfulness will be useful for you.

What is Anxiety?

Fear is, of course, a component of anxiety. When experienced in the moment, perhaps in response to a sudden scare, fear resolves fairly quickly. However, if you then become worried that the fearful experience will happen again, this taps into the future, fuelling anxiety.

This is where mental distress comes in, and based on our own experience, we understand all too well how thoughts and worries about future events can set the mind spinning out of control, making it difficult or impossible to concentrate and focus in the present. Anxiety also has emotional and physical aspects illuminated by the roots of the word “anxiety”: the Latin anxietas, which means “anguish” or “solicitude,” capturing the feeling of heart wringing and contraction that can accompany anxiety. The other Latin root associated with “anxiety” is angere, meaning “to choke or squeeze” or, more figuratively, “to torment or cause distress.” This conveys the physical experience of tightness, constriction, and gripping that anxiety can create in the body.

“Anxiety” has many synonyms, including “fear,” “foreboding,” “worry,” “disquiet,” “tension,” “unease,” “restlessness,” “watchfulness,” “distress,” “concern,” “nervousness,” and the all-encompassing “suffering.” These words paint a more complete picture of the experience of anxiety, encompassing its physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms. Just reading this list may make you actively consider the difficulties, challenges, and concerns in your life.

Now, just as importantly, consider some antonyms for anxiety: “certainty,” “serenity,” “tranquility,” “assurance,” “calm,” “contentment,” “happiness,” “peacefulness,” “bravery,” “composure,” and “confidence.” Simply by reading this list, you might actually feel some of these qualities within you as well. All of these words, both synonyms and antonyms, are quite compelling and speak to the universality of human experience. We’ve all had moments of peace and tranquility, times when we were free of worry and confident; and we can touch those states even in remembrance.

Mindful Writing Exercise: Journaling Your Experience of Anxiety

This exercise will help you further explore your own lived experience of anxiety. While you might think you already know this state all too well, exploring anxiety in the manner outlined below is an avenue of self-discovery that can help you refine your understanding of and ability to describe what you actually experience when in an anxious state.

Give yourself some time to do this exercise in a place where you feel safe and secure and won’t be interrupted, and please extend great kindness and care to yourself as you do it.

Find a comfortable posture and begin by settling into the moment and your body, mind, and heart with a few breaths, perhaps even closing your eyes. Just allow everything to be without changing anything.

When you’re ready, call to mind a recent experience of anxiety. If possible, choose a situation in which you felt only moderately anxious, not extremely anxious. That said, trust what arises, and focus on just one event. Let yourself get a full sense of the event, and then pay particular attention to what you experienced physically, mentally, and emotionally. Spend some time in this visualization—then, when you’re ready, read and respond to the following questions in writing.

  1. What bodily sensations did you experience during the event? Be as specific as possible. (For example, I felt tingling in hands and my palms got sweaty. I couldn’t focus my vision. My shoulders and the back of my neck were tight, and it was hard to breathe.)
  2. What thoughts or thinking processes were happening during the event? Again, be specific. (For example, I had racing thoughts that were too numerous to catch. A voice that sounded like my dad’s said, “Why would anyone listen to you?” Then I experienced a series of distressing images without words.)
  3. What emotions or feeling tones were present during that event? Here too, be specific. (For example, I felt fearful of entering the room. I was worried about not being able to remember the flow of the presentation and feeling like a failure. And I was really angry that this was happening again.)

When you’ve finished writing, congratulate yourself for taking the time to explore an experience of anxiety in such rich detail. This is an all-important first step in learning to turn toward your anxiety and transform your experience of it.

A Mindful Pause

Before moving on, take a moment to pause and allow the practice to settle. When you’re ready to move on, go slowly, moving deliberately and with awareness. Like a gentle but steady rain, this allows what you’re learning to soak in deeply. Too often, the speed of our daily lives encourages us to skim the surface and seek a quick fix. Mindfulness asks something different of us: to consciously slow down and simply let things be. Especially in relation to anxiety, this nurtures calmness at its biological roots.

 Too often, the speed of our daily lives encourages us to skim the surface and seek a quick fix. Mindfulness asks something different of us: to consciously slow down and simply let things be.

*One important note: If you’re taking medication for your anxiety, please don’t stop taking it because you’re working with mindfulness. Decreasing or stopping medication should only be done under the care of your prescribing doctor. Mindfulness can be a powerful method of working with anxiety, and it blends well with other approaches, including medications, psychotherapy, and counseling. Talk with your health care providers about the best way to integrate all of your treatments to obtain the greatest benefit.

This article has been adapted from A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook  by Bob Stahl PhD.

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