Mindfulness and anxiety

by Rosalie Dores on 3rd December 2015

Anxiety is an experience we all have to a lesser or greater degree. It can be an extremely unpleasant experience, generating bodily sensations such as nausea, heart palpitations, dry mouth, sweating, shallow and speedy breathing and less specific an overwhelming sense of dread. In a former post entitled the “Anatomy of Anxiety” I pointed to the ways in which anxiety manifests not just physically, but also mentally. When we feel anxious our thought processes can often speed up, exacerbating the actual felt experience of anxiety.

When we practice mindfulness, we learn how to tease out the thoughts from the bodily sensations. We rest our attention in the actual physicality of the experience, sensation e.g. heaviness in the stomach, tightness in the chest, rapid breathing. This is very different from heaviness in the stomach/ “There’s something wrong with me.” Tightness in the chest/“I’m going to die.” Rapid breathing/“I can’t cope!” Recognising the ways that our thoughts activate, and exacerbate, our experience, can go a long way to reducing the sometimes debilitating aspects of anxiety.

It doesn’t mean that when we practice, and live mindfully, that we won’t experience anxiety any more. It is part of the human condition, and actually an important and helpful experience to have at times ( see this film to find out more) Psychologically, anxiety helps keep us alert, for example walking down a dark street at night we need to keep our wits about us. It can also drive us to get things done and to deal with problems, for example find a job so that we can pay our bills, meet the deadline for an exam. Physically, anxiety readies us for action, so that we can run away from danger or defend ourselves from harm if necessary. Anxiety becomes a problem, when we develop what might be called secondary anxiety, we get anxious about being anxious. It’s a vicious circle, the thinking about anxiety, generating further anxiety.

Skills such as the ones we learn on a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme, are tremendously helpful. We can begin to take the drivers seat when anxiety arises, rather than passively sitting in the passenger seat and allowing our anxiety to take us on a nightmare roller coaster journey. At the same time, though skills go a long way, alone they are not enough. We also need to cultivate a particular way of being with ourselves when we are anxious. It can be, after all, a very unpleasant experience. I find the image of parent with their unconsolable child very helpful in this. A parent, may not know why their child is crying, they don’t necessarily know how to stop the child crying, but they do know how to hold the child, to say soothing words, to rock the child. For this they need a tremendous amount of patience and kindness, as the child’s cries may go on beyond what they consider reasonable.

In our mindfulness practice, we cultivate the capacity to stay present, so that with a gathered mind, we can know what is going on. At the same time, we are also cultivating ‘capacity’, the possibility of being able to ‘hold’ , to be with, whatever might arise in our experience. For this we need the attitudinal foundations of non-striving, acceptance, patience, trust, letting-go/letting-be and the suspension of judgement.

Patience is a formidable ally in the face of difficulties, we take small steps, gently exposing ourselves to what is difficult, and increasing capacity slowly over time. For example, we may notice anxious feelings arise, we kindly pause and pay attention to what is going on, it feels too much we distract ourselves, in whatever way feels most supportive. The next time this happens maybe we pause patiently for longer, and so it goes, step-by-step increasing capacity.

A particular story that I heard recently in relation to being with difficulty, really touched me. The teacher spoke about how the human system faced with anxiety or fear, trembles like a bird, so nervous, so sensitive. He asked us listeners, whether we would be willing to wait patiently, to let the bird tremble until it was ready to stop and settle, knowing it was safe. Can we wait that long, do we have the patience, can we trust, can we hold ourselves in that quality of understanding, and kindness? I do hope so….

Image courtesy of Anita Klein