If you struggle with anxiety, you know it can sometimes be unbearable. Your heart races, you have trouble breathing, your mind starts spinning, and you feel utterly uncomfortable in your own skin. No matter what triggered these distressing thoughts, feelings or sensations, let’s assume you are not happy about them. Let’s even assume you desperately want them to change.
While there are many natural techniques out that you can practice on your own or with a therapist to reduce symptoms of anxiety – such as mindful breathing, meditation, relaxation exercises, and yoga – today I am not going to focus on how to calm your nervous system when anxiety is triggered. Instead, I am going to focus on taking a closer look at your reactions to your experience of anxiety and how these reactions impact your well-being as a whole.
When I say reactions to your anxiety, I am talking about how you relate to this uncomfortable experience. There is the initial experience of anxiety itself. Then, what happens next? Can you notice certain thoughts or feelings that arise when you feel yourself becoming anxious? Maybe your initial thought is, “Oh no! Not this again!” or “What can I do to make this feeling go away?” or “Something is wrong with me because I’m feeling this way again.” As with all uncomfortable or painful feelings and experiences, it is quite natural to want to change the experience and find something that makes you feel better. Maybe you are not aware of the thoughts that you say to yourself right as you start to feel anxious. That’s also perfectly natural. The next time you notice the feeling of anxiety in your body, take a moment to notice the thoughts you experience right in the moment as they are happening. The goal right now is not to change the thoughts, but rather to be curious about them.
Another part of your reaction to be curious about is your feelings. What feelings do you notice right after your become anxious? Of course you probably notice the feeling of anxiety. But there may be other feelings connected to this experience. Maybe you feel frustrated or angry that this is happening again. Maybe you feel sad that that you can’t do the activities you want to do because you feel paralyzed by your anxiety. Maybe you feel lonely because you stay away from people when you feel anxious. Usually people experience a wide range of thoughts and feelings about their anxiety, and quite often these thoughts and feelings make the experience of anxiety even more painful and feed the endless cycle of fear, worry, and confusion. Hence, you may be experiencing anxiety about your anxiety!
Luckily, feeling anxiety about your anxiety is quite common and more importantly, it is not hopeless! Bringing mindfulness to your anxiety as well as to your reactions to your anxiety is the first step in thwarting this painful cycle. Mindfulness is bringing curious, non-judgmental attention to exactly what you are experiencing in the moment. You are turning on the part of you that knows how to pay attention to whatever is happening inside of you – your thoughts, feelings and body sensations – without trying to fix or change them. The very act of trying to change your experience often makes the experience even more uncomfortable; yet by paying kind, gentle attention to your direct experience, very often the pain diminishes on its own and there is a sense of freedom. You may still feel uncomfortable sensations or notice disturbing thoughts, but when seen through the lens of mindfulness, these experiences usually seem more manageable and not as overwhelming or stressful as they initially were.
The important thing to note here is that mindfulness brings power and choice. We cannot change our initial experience of anxiety once it has been triggered, but with care and practice we can develop the ability to choose how we want to react to this experience.
Bringing mindfulness to your experience is something you can practice on your own, although it can be quicker and easier to learn when practiced with a therapist. Mindfulness is like a muscle that needs to be exercised often to get stronger – both in the context of therapy and also through meditation practice – until it becomes natural and part of your moment-to-moment life. Even experienced meditators benefit from practicing with a therapist, as the act of having two mindful people present both supports the muscle of mindfulness to grow and helps anchor the attitude of warmth and curiosity needed to change the deep-seated patterns of our habitual reactions.
After learning about your reactions to anxiety and ways to be mindfully aware of these reactions, at first you may feel even more anxious and overwhelmed. I will close by saying that while anxiety is often painful, frustrating, and confusing, it is possible over time to bring clarity, ease and lightness to this experience. Since such relief may not happen right away, don’t give up! With patience and practice, you eventually can become the master of your experience, instead of feeling like your anxiety is the master of you.