How To Practice Mindfulness For Anxiety

By: Jon Jaehnig

Updated May 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

Anxiety is becoming more common while mindfulness is more popular. In a way, one of them is almost antithetical to one another. One promotes calm, and the other incites a disturbance.

While mindfulness may not be enough to combat severe cases of anxiety, it can help in a pinch. That's especially true for people who experience anxiety from time to time but don't have an anxiety disorder or who can't get proper treatment for one.

Here, we'll give a brief introduction to anxiety and mindfulness and then talk about how to practice mindfulness for anxiety.

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An Introduction To Anxiety

To be clear, the occasional experience of anxiety is normal and healthy. It may not be pleasant, but it isn't bad. Feelings of anxiety include intense fear or worry.

Anxiety becomes a problem when it is the result of an anxiety disorder. People with anxiety disorders may feel anxiety virtually all of the time. They may also feel intense anxiety in situations that don't call for it, or that may only cause light anxiety in someone else. They are also more likely to experience panic attacks - episodes in which feelings of anxiety cause frightening symptoms including shortness of breath, chest pain, a fast pulse, and other symptoms.

Sometimes, anxiety is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain in which messenger molecules are not produced or used in the right amounts. Other times, however, anxiety can be caused by life events including prolonged stress from a demanding job, abuse, or other long-term difficult life changes. Anxiety is also on the rise as people worry more and more about economic conditions, politics, the environment, and other concerns. Some experts have said that technology has increased our awareness of these issues and decreased our ability to look away from them and relax.

There are several treatment options including medication and talk therapy. Medication is often used in the case of individuals who suffer anxiety as a result of chemical imbalance though it is often used in combination with talk therapy in other cases. Similarly, talk therapy may be used by itself. This option is common among people who are distrustful of medication or afraid of side effects, though this population has decreased as drugs have improved and the stigma around medication has decreased. An individual's availability of options may depend on where they live, the availability of diagnosis, the ability to pay for various treatments, and other factors.

An Introduction To Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a series of practices that aim at allowing the practitioner to focus on what is going on around them in the present moment. The ideas are that most of our stresses and anxieties stem from things that already happened and that we cannot change or from things that have not yet happen and that we cannot change - if they should happen at all.

Much of mindfulness is based on ancient practices developed in the Asian Pacific region. Most of its ideas about using meditation as a way to stay in the moment come from Zen Buddhism, a philosophical school developed in China, Japan, and India.

Mindfulness, as promoted and practiced by mental health experts, is also largely based on the idea of person-centered therapy. Developed during the previous century, person-centered therapy takes the focus on mental illness away from ideas like Freud's subconscious or Skinner's behaviouralism and instead focuses on how the individual perceives themselves and the world around them.

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Practicing Mindfulness For Anxiety

Mindfulness may be practiced by the individual, with aids found online or in books, or under the watchful eye of an expert including a counselor or therapist. Be careful in choosing such a guide, however. People who claim to practice mindfulness rather than therapy may be able to maneuver around licensing requirements that help in the vetting of other mental health experts.

As mentioned above, mindfulness relies on heavy use of meditation. Don't let that scare you, however. Mindfulness meditation is much less mystical than you may imagine when you see the word "meditation." Mindfulness meditation usually focuses on exercises that draw the meditator's attention to the sensation of breathing.

Focusing on breathing can be calming in itself, but we'll talk more about that later. One of the key objectives of mindfulness meditation is to help the meditator become more aware of their passive thoughts.

If you've ever been distracted by your thought while reading, or become suddenly aware of unintentional thoughts while taking a shower, you may have noticed that our minds don't just shut off when we aren't using them. Even when we aren't paying attention, our minds' background activity can impact how we think, feel, and behave. Mindfulness experts borrow from older texts in calling this aspect of our personalities "the monkey mind." The goal of mindfulness meditation is to make the meditator gradually more aware of what their monkey mind is up to so that they can prevent it from going in dangerous directions that may lead to a panic attack.

Mental health experts working with mindfulness will also have tools that they can teach their patients for dealing with panic attacks already underway.

A Quick Mindfulness Meditation

There are lots of online resources for mindfulness meditation, including guided meditations that you can listen to help you through the process, especially as you are getting started. Over time you can pick and choose your favorites and recognize what works for you so that you can create your exercises and do them without assistance anywhere and anytime. Here's a quick example of a simple mindfulness meditation exercise:

Sit or lie down. You should be comfortable enough to remain in that position for at least five minutes but not so comfortable that you are going to fall asleep.

Focus on your breath. You don't have to try to correct it or count your inhales or exhales or anything like that. Just pay attention to how frequent it is, how deep it feels, how it makes your body feel as you breathe in and out. You may notice your breath rate and depth change, but that's fine.

Chances are, you're going to be distracted. When you get distracted, don't beat yourself up. Just take notice of what thought distracted you and focus on your breathing again.

Try to do this for at least five minutes per session but at least one session per week. As you continue in your practice, you can meditate for longer and meditate more often. As mentioned above, you should also experiment with other kinds of mindfulness exercises to see what works for you.

Mindfulness For Anxiety: Getting To Know Your Monkey Mind

In that meditation exercise, if you do it long enough and often enough, you should get a lot better at being aware of what your monkey mind is up to.

As you become more aware of your monkey mind in your meditation practice, you should become more aware of it in your everyday life. For most of us, what become feelings of anxiety result from our monkey minds worrying about things that don't affect us, that we can't change, or that aren't even real. Being more aware of what your monkey mind is up to, you may find it easier to simply make up your mind not to worry about these things.

Mindfulness For Anxiety: Grounding Yourself

Once you've gotten good at your meditation practice, it becomes easier to do "mini-meditations." If you notice yourself starting to worry, just close your eyes and check in with your breath. You don't have to lie down or even sit.

Ask yourself "What am I worrying about? Is this likely to be a problem? Is there something that I can do about this? If it is a problem and I can do something about it, do I need to spend time thinking about this issue, or are there more constructive ways that I can address it?"

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Mindfulness For Anxiety: The Stress Response

There's at least one more way in which mindfulness meditation can help with anxiety, and that comes down to breathing.

Without getting too deep into it, your nervous system is divided into a part that you can control and a part that you can't. The part that you can control makes up things like your muscles. The part that you can't control includes things like your heart. You breathing is in both of these areas: it can become faster or slower, deeper or shallower without your realizing it but you can also control it.

During the stress response - which can become a panic attack - the part of your nervous system that you can't control tells your lungs to take faster and shallower breaths.

However, some studies have shown that when your breath starts to become fast and shallow, telling it to become deeper and slower through exercises called diaphragmatic breathing can help to convince your body that there's not a threat after all and help to calm you down.

How BetterHelp Can Help

As mentioned above, if you feel nervous or anxious from time to time, you probably don't have an anxiety disorder. If that's the case for you, practicing mindfulness for anxiety as discussed in this article may be enough to do you a world of good. However, if you constantly feel anxious, your feelings of anxiety make you worry about your health or prevent you from living your life, you might have an anxiety disorder. In this case, you should talk to a healthcare provider and a mental health expert if you can.

BetterHelp tries to make mental health achievable for everyone partially by publishing educational articles like this one. They also offer a service in which they connect users with a professional, licensed therapist over the internet.

If you think that you could benefit from talking to a counselor or therapist but don't have easy access to one that works for your needs in your area, consider visiting https://betterhelp.com/online-therapy/ to learn more.


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