Four Mindfulness Techniques That Help You Fight Anxiety
And why formal meditation isn’t the answer.
An unfortunate feature of the human mind is that there’s a voice in there that never stops talking and is completely out of our control. If you’re unlucky, that voice is overwhelmingly negative and dominates your attention, convincing you that all the terrible things it’s telling you are true. The inability to stop listening to that voice is known as anxiety.
In this sense, anxiety can be thought of as a misallocation of attention. Too much attention is being diverted to all of the things (real and imagined) that might go wrong, and too little attention is left over for the things that could go right, and more importantly, for whatever is happening in the present moment.
When we think of improving and controlling attention, we often think of meditation, which is why meditation is often suggested as a remedy for people dealing with anxiety. But this is to misunderstand what meditation is, and to confuse it with another popular practice; mindfulness.
Meditation vs Mindfulness
The terms mindfulness and meditation are often used interchangeably, but there are important differences between the two. Meditation is to mindfulness as strength training is to lifting something heavy. Strength training helps you to develop strength, which is useful when you need to lift something unusually heavy. And meditation helps you to develop control over your attention, which is useful when you need to be mindful.
Meditation is the long term, “slow and steady” work which improves the quality of your attention and your ability to direct it. The effect of an individual session is negligible, but the cumulative effect can be life-changing.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, is about using whatever amount of attention you currently have available, to deal with the situation you’re currently facing. This can have immediate and meaningful effects.
Mindfulness can be applied to eating a raisin or smoking a cigarette or in this case, anxiety. It changes the character of experience by helping us to notice it more fully. This might not seem desirable in the case of anxiety, but hopefully, the following examples will clarify the benefits:
As anybody who suffers from anxiety knows, emotions and breathing are closely related. Many anxiety sufferers will find that their breathing is affected by the onset of an attack. Fortunately, this connection works in both directions; anxiety can affect breathing, but breathing can also affect anxiety.
Deep breathing has been shown to have a positive effect on anxiety, due to its ability to reduce the sympathetic nervous system activity that triggers the fight/flight response. Begin by paying attention to the sensation of breathing, instead of immediately trying to control the way you’re breathing. Once your attention is focused on your breathing, you may well find it changing by itself, and if you don’t, you should find it easier to control.
N.B. Of course, this should only be attempted if you’re able to breathe comfortably. If your anxiety is causing you to hyperventilate or you’re having any other problems getting enough air, make sure you seek medical help.
Pay Attention to Sensations
Just as you can pay attention to your breath, you can also pay attention to other physical sensations. Maybe you find that your shoulders are tense, your jaw is tense or your palms are sweaty (some people even report that their knees are weak or their arms are heavy).
Keep in mind that the sensations themselves aren’t good or bad, it’s how we think about them that determines how we experience them. Like Sam Harris, the well-known author and meditator points out, there’s not really any difference between the physical sensations related to anxiety and those related to the excitement. Every day, people go to theme parks and pay money for the opportunity to feel sensations that, in another context, would make them delirious with terror.
Try to think of the sensations in your body the same way. Notice the feelings as they arise and change without assigning the judgements of good and bad to them. Negative and positive feelings are much more about interpretation than reality. Or as Fritz Perl, the founder of Gestalt Therapy put it: “Fear is just excitement without the breath.”
Examine Your Thoughts
A few months ago I found a dead cockroach in the shower of the Airbnb I was staying in. I wanted nothing more than to ignore it, but given that there was no way I could have a shower unless I got rid of it (and wallowing in my own filth for the next 3 days wasn’t an option) I had no choice but to do something about it.
I went and got a broom, thinking I could just sweep it away, but every time I got close to it, I found myself recoiling in disgust (bear in mind that I wasn’t touching it directly, just with the broom. Yes, I’m just that much of a wuss). Thankfully I realised that this was ridiculous. So I paused and asked myself what was making me react this way.
What was I afraid of that justified this response?
After asking myself this question I realised that even though I knew it was dead, I’d been imagining that it would start running around in that gross, scuttling way that cockroaches do. Or worse, that it would run onto me. This isn’t even the most unlikely eventuality I was imagining. All kinds of completely implausible nightmare scenarios had been left to freely rattle around my brain, all because I hadn’t consciously examined them.
Once I asked myself what my fears actually were and gave myself a chance to listen to how irrational the answers were, dealing with the situation wasn’t nearly as big a deal anymore.
One major benefit of our dwindling attention spans is that it’s easier to distract ourselves from anxious thoughts. Remember, anxiety is a misallocation of attention, so if all else fails, try directing your attention towards something else. If you can find something other than your anxious thoughts to focus on, the feelings that accompany them will also fade.
You might think that you should go for maximum impact when choosing a distraction, but research suggests that in some cases, high-intensity activities like playing video games can increase the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Instead, try moderate exercise, cleaning, or even adult colouring books. Anything that focuses your attention in a calm, low-stimulus way.
Mindfulness is a way of bringing your attention into the present moment, which is the one place anxiety cannot live. Anxiety is always concerned with something that’s going to happen in the future or something that has already happened in the past.
Mindfulness techniques such as those described above can help refocus your attention on the present moment, weakening anxiety’s hold on your mind in the process. These techniques can be supported by a meditation practice, which will strengthen your ability to place your attention where you want to, but a meditation practise isn’t required to reap the benefits. All that’s required is patience, time, and the willingness to challenge that voice.