Mindfulness practice refers to the purposeful effort we make to pay attention to the present moment, without judgment of our experience. It is an action step to stop whatever you are currently doing and take inventory of what is going on in your mind, your body and your environment.
The practice of mindfulness has been around for many years and is a highly researched and evidence-based method found to reduce many issues such as stress, anxiety and depression. Incorporating mindfulness and mindful awareness on a regular basis has many potential benefits in reducing anxiety symptoms. As an anxiety therapist in Rockland County, NY, I offer mindfulness as a tool that can help my clients. Many people with generalized anxiety and social anxiety benefit from these practices.
One reason is that taking a step back to observe our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations can provide helpful information. When anxiety symptoms start, we are usually operating from flight, fight or freeze mode. The nervous system is activated and the body automatically prepares to respond, producing many physiological and psychological changes. If we respond only from this space, we may get stuck in a pattern of panic or fear.
Observing Your Thoughts and Emotions
With mindfulness practice, you take an intentional moment in your day to pause. You actively make a choice to stop everything you are doing and just observe your thoughts. This pause does not have to be long and can last from just a few seconds to as long as you want it to be. The power lies within being able to stay with the sensations that arise, without judging yourself. This will allow you to gain insights into your anxiety.
During a mindful pause of a few minutes, you may start to become aware of your thoughts. You may find all sorts of thoughts and feelings cross through your mind and lead to anxiety that you were not initially aware of. For example, a common experience for many starting out with mindfulness is the shock of just how many unrelated thoughts come in. There may be a temptation to pick a stream of thought or even avoid thinking or feeling something that creates anxiety.
The power of observation is that you are simply observing and allowing thoughts to flow. This is actually how mindfulness works. The goal is not to try to change, problem solve or avoid thoughts and emotions, but rather to stay with them. Notice how they influence your current anxiety and mood. Doing so can really shed a light on the type of thoughts that you have and can guide you in deciphering between helpful and unhelpful thoughts and emotions.
For example, you may realize that worrying about a job you will start in two months, may not actually be helpful to you right now in the present moment. This realization alone can help you relate differently to your anxiety as you can implement strategies to relax and cope.
Mindful Awareness of Your Breathing
Paying attention to your breath is essential in reducing anxiety symptoms. A common strategy in mindfulness practice is to use the breath as an ‘anchor’. Focusing on the repetitive pattern of inhaling and exhaling can be grounding as it shifts the focus from worrying to the natural flow of the breath. Notice the sound and feeling of your breath as you inhale and exhale. The goal here is to direct your focus on breathing and not get stuck in the weeds of overthinking.
Again, you are not trying to avoid or get rid of your thoughts. However, observe when your mind has drifted away from the focus on breathing and bring it back gently. A good imagery to use here is to guide your mind gently back to your breathing. Guide your mind as you would guide a small child back to an activity. Calmly and kindly. A helpful and often used phrase to remember is, “If your mind wanders 100 times, bring it back 100 times.” It is natural for the mind to wander. Remember to be kind to yourself and avoid judgment.
Another way to focus on your breathing is to use a body part as an anchor. Many people choose to focus the sensation of their breath on the belly, focusing on the rise and fall movement. You may choose any other body part that feels comfortable to you.
Using Curiosity in Mindfulness Practice
Curiosity in mindfulness practice is fundamental. Curiosity helps to open your mind to growth and possibility. As you begin to practice mindfulness regularly, you will learn a lot about yourself. You will become aware of the types of thoughts you have, including the kind or unkind words that arise. You may notice your ability to focus or maybe even the incredible uneasiness and stress you feel.
The purpose of mindfulness is not to try and stop any of these sensations or to criticize yourself for having them. The only intention is to increase awareness. When you take a curious stance, you are essentially giving yourself an opportunity to learn and deepen a relationship with yourself.
For example, you may develop curiosity about how often your mind wanders and to what it wanders. You may learn more about your body and find that it is often tense. As the mind may wander toward a particular stress point, such as the shoulders. You may learn over time how to use the natural flow of your breathing to pause and focus on the present moment instead of future worrying and planning.
Staying curious and open, you may learn information that can eventually leads to reducing your anxiety.
The power of mindfulness works for many people. However, it is important to note that some people with a trauma history or who are prone to trauma symptoms may notice that it creates stress or can be triggering. If you find this to be true for you, please do not judge yourself. The curiosity here is that you learned something about yourself. Another tool may be better suited for you. Don’t give up.