Making Mindfulness Work for Anxiety

Mar 9
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Several years ago, when my anxiety was stuck in its intense phase, I decided to give mindfulness another try. Yes, another try. In my quest for the holy grail, that one thing that would miraculously poof away all of my social anxiety and generalized anxiety, I had tried many things many times. “Mindfulness” as a technique for soothing so many things, including anxiety, is something that was and continues to be hailed as effective in decreasing anxiety.

On paper, it makes sense. The anxious mind races with often uncontrollable worry and fear. Mindfulness calms and quiets the mind. Therefore, mindfulness will quiet anxiety. Right? Right. But it’s not so quick and easy.

I remember suffering through a yoga class. I didn’t suffer because I was ridiculously inflexible (I am, but that wasn’t the problem). It was painful because I couldn’t get my mind to shut up and experience the peace of the class. I kept telling myself that I should be still, that I shouldn’t be thinking of the million other thoughts and worries that were whirling around my mind. When it came time for the final relaxation, my mind and body were so agitated that I could barley lie still on the mat. The only thing that prevented me from jumping up and bolting out the door was that I was on the far side of the room, trapped by a sea of calm bodies that I was afraid to disturb and disrupt by leaving.

So much for mindfulness. And in the wee hours of the morning when I would toss and turn and ruminate over mistakes both past and future? I simply could not still my mind and be mindful. Of course, this failing added fuel to my fire of anxiety that burned within.

My inability to still my mind and pay attention only to the present moment (hallmarks of mindfulness) was bothersome to me because I knew the research behind its effectiveness. Mindfulness, when practiced regularly, is proven to be effective in reducing anxiety and increasing mental health and well-being — in helping people create a life worth living.

Happily, I can now say with conviction that mindfulness does indeed quiet the mind and calm anxiety, and this knowledge comes not just from research but from my own personal experience. for me, the key to quieting my mind enough to be mindful of the present was to fully use all of my senses.

Initially, I was only using my brain to try to be mindful. After all, in the brain lie (or, rather, run) the thoughts. So I tried to stop the thoughts from racing. To do this, I commanded my thoughts to stop racing and to pay attention to what was going on. Yeah, that didn’t work so well.

What does work is to leave the racing, anxious thoughts alone. If I try to force them to stop, I’m paying attention to them and energizing them. That is not the result I want. Instead, I let them be and begin to pay attention to other things around me. I use all of my senses: what do I see, hear, smell, feel, and taste (this last one isn’t always practical–I’m certainly not going to lick a mailbox or something–but if it is, I use it). In activating all of my senses and paying attention to them, I am invoking powerful imagery that is immediate and strong enough to quell anxiety.

Making Mindfulness Work for AnxietyUsing the senses to form powerful, calming imagery can look like this experience described by Brian Cunningham, the main, very anxious, character in My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel:

I take a moment to gather myself by leaning back against a wall and closing my eyes. I take deep breaths to quiet the anxiety that has me wired and agitated inside. I slowly take in the faint smells of grease, oil, and cleaning fluids that smell like spotlessness and order. I enjoy the soothing scents for a moment before turning my attention to the sounds, and I’m transported to the forest trails I love. The water moving through the pipes becomes the muted, distant roar of a waterfall that is gentler, softer than up close. The occasional clicks of the HVAC equipment at work could be a woodpecker if it ever were to strike a tree more slowly, or could eve be small rocks tumbling from the face of a cliff onto larger stone. The faint buzzing of the lights over my head is like the insects thta lull me to sleep in the tent at night. All together, these create a type of white noise that calms me enough to be able to do what I need to do.

That’s absolutely what I sought–to be calm enough to do what I needed to do. The use of all of the senses to create, in the moment, calm, soothing imagery does indeed soothe anxiety. It’s become a regular tool for me, so much so that I hardly even need it anymore. I’ll never stop using the senses to aid in mindfulness, though, because I like the stillness that I can induce with sensory mindfulness.

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2 Comments

  • Kimberly Smith says:

    I love how you use humor to talk about anxiety and how to deal with it. I have been fighting it my whole life and lately feel like it spinning out of control again but I didn’t let it . That when I came across your reads. They help give me ideas and lift my spirits by making me laugh cause you use humor.

    • Hi Kimberly!
      Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate it! I find humor helpful because it prevents me from taking myself way too seriously. And laughter doesn’t make the negative things disappear, but it makes us the champions because we can smile despite problems. It takes strength to keep going and not let anxiety spin out of control, so take a bow. Always give your strengths more attention than anxiety.

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