Susan C. Maytorena, Ph.D., PLC
You know the feeling. The worry about that comment your boss made. The intense fear as you prepare to take that flight tomorrow. The panic that comes on, seemingly out of nowhere. The headache that won’t go away when you think about that mountain of overdue tasks. Maybe you are struggling with recent problem and the stress is getting the better of you. Maybe you are dealing with a longer-term issue with anxiety. How do you feel better, more able to cope, and more able to face your fears?
Mindfulness, a very old practice, is gaining a lot of new attention. That’s because more and more, researchers and the general public are finding it so helpful in treating a myriad of conditions, from anxiety, stress, and depression, to breaking bad habits, to back pain and headaches. So what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is most simply defined as “awareness of the present experience with acceptance.”
Mindfulness is particularly suited to help with anxiety and stress. If you think about it, so much of anxiety is based on a worry about what might happen in the future. Mindfulness helps alleviate stress and anxiety by helping people to stay in the present moment, which often is quite okay. Mindfulness also helps reduce anxiety by, paradoxically, enabling people become more aware of and tolerant of their anxiety. Much anxiety comes from actually avoiding situations in which we are afraid we will become anxious. Avoiding these situations, while providing temporary relief, only reinforces the anxiety in the long run. If you can challenge yourself to experience the difficult feelings, let them run their course, and notice that (1) the feelings dissipate and (2) you were okay all along, you can go a long way towards reducing your anxiety.
So how does one become mindful? By practicing mindfulness exercises. The remainder of this article will describe several exercises that are particularly helpful with anxiety and stress. The first exercise, the Breath Awareness Exercise, can be done alone, but also lays the foundation for many other mindfulness exercises. Try the Breath Awareness Exercise first several times before moving on to the others. Try to allow yourself 10 to 20 minutes each time you try an exercise to allow it to have an effect.
Breathe Awareness Exercise:* This exercise helps you steady your mind and become aware of current experiences through maintaining focus and concentration.
• Sitting down, find a comfortable yet upright position.
• Close your eyes. Now focus your attention on your breath. Try to notice the sensations of your breath and you inhale and exhale. You might notice your chest rising and falling, your belly moving up and down, or the sensation of the air as it passes in and out through your nostrils. Try to follow your breath through the complete cycles of the air coming in your nose, filling your lungs, emptying out of your lungs, and coming back out your nose. You’re not trying to regulate or control the breath in any way. You are simply trying to focus your attention on the sensations of your breathing.
• At some point during this exercise, pretty soon actually, you will probably notice that you attention has wandered away from your breath and onto some other thoughts. This is to be expected. We are thinking creatures, and our minds wander frequently. Try not to judge yourself for wandering, but rather applaud yourself for noticing. Now bring your attention back to your breath. You are not trying to make your mind blank or rid yourself of thoughts. You are not moving against something but rather towards your breath.
• When you are ready to end the mediation, simply open your eyes.
Mindfulness of Anxiety in the Body:* This exercise helps you be more aware of the physical symptoms of anxiety and, more importantly, helps you tolerate them rather than avoiding them.
• Begin by doing the Breath Awareness Exercise for a few minutes.
• After a few minutes of focusing on your breath, begin to focus now on the actual physical sensations of anxiety. Notice your heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, restlessness, sweating, upset stomach, and so on.
• Rather than questioning what they mean or why they are there, just focus on the ebb and flow of the actual sensations. Do they change? Get stronger? Get weaker? Move from one area of the body to another?
• Before long, you’ll likely notice your mind wandering from the anxious sensations to thinking about something else. Congratulate yourself for noticing, and gently bring your awareness back to the anxious physical sensations.
• Most likely, you will have an urge to avoid feeling the sensations by stopping the mediation, shifting positions, or thinking about something else. Try to resist this urge and stay with the anxious sensations. You may find that after a while they actually decrease. Even if they don’t, you are teaching yourself that, while uncomfortable, you can actually tolerate the anxiety.
Thoughts are Just Thoughts:* This exercise is particularly helpful for working with worry. Worry is thinking about something that might happen. This mediation helps get a little distance from the worrisome thoughts.
• Begin by doing the Breath Awareness Exercise for a few minutes.
• After a few minutes of focusing on your breath, your mind will likely wander to a worry. Now imagine that you are the sky, and the worries are clouds, passing by you. Notice that you are not your thoughts. You, the sky, remains steady, but the clouds, the thoughts, pass by, increasing and decreasing in intensity, growing bigger and growing smaller, but always passing by.
• An alternate imagery is to imagine that you are a stream bank, watching your worries on bubbles in the water passing by. Notice how you remain steady and constant, while the bubbles pop or move on.
• If you would like something less abstract, you can imagine yourself as the conveyor belt, while the thoughts are boxes, falling off at the end with a “think.”
• When you are ready to stop, slowly open your eyes.
Mindful Walking:* If you find that you are just too restless to sit or focus your mind during the above exercises, or if the time to practice keeps eluding you, try an informal mindful walking exercise. At some point during your day you have to walk anyway!
• Put away all distractions (smartphone, Mp3 player, etc.) away and on silent.
• Before you begin walking, just take a few moments to notice what is around you. Notice the sights in front of you, the sounds you hear, and the feeling of the air surrounding you. Follow your breath through a few complete cycles-in and out.
• Begin walking, noticing all the sensations associated with walking. Notice each foot leaving the ground. Notice each foot as it touches the ground. Notice any tension in your muscles as you are walking.
• When your mind wanders, avoid judging or criticizing. Congratulate yourself for noticing, and bring your awareness back to the sensations associated with walking.
• When you get to your destination, take a few more moments to notice the sights, sounds, air, and breath before you stop your meditation.
The above are a few of the many mindfulness exercises that may be used to alleviate stress and anxiety. Note that mindfulness is not a “relaxation strategy.” In fact, as you allow yourself to experience the anxiety you are usually trying to make go away, you might find yourself momentarily more uncomfortable. This does not mean that the mindfulness practices are not working. Quite the opposite, they are working because the exercises are helping you build your tolerance for uncomfortable feelings. So long as you feel capable of dealing with any negative feelings that may arise, keep up your practice. Should you find that the feelings that arise are too intense or overwhelming, stop for now. Perhaps consider consulting with a mental health professional before moving further. Remember that mindfulness exercise is like physical exercise. Doing some is better than doing none, but the more you can do, the more likely you are to see results. No matter how much or little you do, don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back for taking this important step to towards your well-being.
*Adapted with permission from: www.mindfulness-solution.com
Germer, C. K., Siegel, R. D., & Fulton, P. R. (Eds.). (2013). Mindfulness and psychotherapy (3rd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Siegel, R. D. (2010). The mindfulness solution: Everyday practices for everyday problems. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.