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How to Combat Anxiety

Five Mindfulness Practices for Tranquility

By now, most of us have heard the term “mindfulness” and we may even be a bit familiar with the concept. So what is mindfulness exactly and how can being mindful help with anxiety? A simple definition of mindfulness is: the practice – the skill – of non-judgmental awareness and acceptance of our present-moment experience, including all of our unwanted or undesirable thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges. Mindfulness teaches us to accept all of our experiences as a part of life, regardless of whether they are considered (by our belief system or cultural indoctrination) “good” or “bad”. When anxiety shows up in life, mindfulness is a tool that can supplement and enhance any form of therapy or efforts on one’s own behalf to heal and become more still internally, more at peace with life.

Mindfulness has its roots in ancient eastern philosophy, and is based on the premise that our attachment to feeling happy and our aversion to feeling badly in some way are the cause of much of our discomfort and misery. Much of the time, when things are difficult, we take up compulsive or avoidant behaviors in an attempt to make ourselves feel better. Can any of you relate? Do you ever find yourself eating mindlessly or finding some other ineffective means of distracting yourself from feelings that are less than desirable?

The following five simple steps can be very helpful when dealing with anxiety, fear, depression, and even pain. Employing the practice of mindfulness allows unwanted thoughts and feelings to be accepted in a more peaceful and non-reactive way. It soon becomes possible to “sit with” your discomfort and learn to embrace a situation that is, at first, unpleasant. Focusing on learning to accept unwanted thoughts and feelings, and on responding to them with fewer counter-productive behaviors, cultivates patience, acceptance and tranquility.

Step One: Become Aware of Your Feelings

When we feel anxiety, we often react to our thoughts and feelings before we are fully aware of them. To begin with, slow down and notice what you are feeling. Do you feel anxious? Sad? Disappointed? Guilty? Where do you feel your feelings? Shoulders? Stomach? Neck or back? Is it a mind racing or is it a sensation of heaviness in your entire body? Rather than turn from the sensations notice them. Try not to immediately react. Inquire first and be “with” your experience.

Step Two: Name Your Feelings

Once an unwanted feeling is noticed, it can be labeled. It as “just a feeling” and in naming it we can then begin to understand how our minds send us into reaction instead of acceptance. When we identify what is really going on we are able to work with the situation instead of work against it. While our unwanted thoughts and feelings may “feel” real and be very convincing, they may not be accurate or even remotely realistic. It is often helpful to identify our thoughts and feelings as “just thoughts” or “just feelings”, not truths and not the truth.

Step Three: Be Non-Judgmental with Thoughts and Feelings

Taking a non-judgmental stance allows understanding of the event from a rational, objective point of view, instead of from a biased and subjective one. As best, bring a compassionate heart to your experience of what your mind is thinking and to what your body and spirit is feeling. Think “allow” and gently breathe into your experience. See what happens when the term “good” or “bad” is not used to describe thoughts or feelings.

Step Four: Be Open to New Behavior

Once you begin to understand and label what is really going on, you can begin to consider approaching your experience rather than distracting from it with unhealthy behaviors. When experience strong anxiety, we often move directly from experiencing it fully into reacting immediately. By cultivating mindfulness, we have the option of choosing to slow down and realizing how our brains have created an event that feels far more threatening than it actually is. We create for ourselves the ability to respond in a wise and skillful way to the experience of feeling anxiety, thus encouraging a more tranquil state.

Step Five: Respond Rather than React

In step five, you are invited to take a risk and challenge your thoughts and feelings by not reacting in a compulsive or avoidant manner. Can you be willing to experience discomfort instead of the relief of immediately being comforted? This is a bold and courageous step which requires a full commitment to feeling your discomfort.  You have the opportunity to free yourself from the previous behaviors that have reduced the quality of your life.  In this step, you will make the decision to be open to experiencing the unwanted thoughts, feelings, or sensations that you have avoided in the past. Rather than opt for short term relief, you are able to embrace “sitting with” discomfort and improving your experience of a full and enriched life.

strong>Try This: Sit back and just be in the moment, noticing your experience, without placing any expectations on how things “should” look, or how you “should” feel. As best, accept whatever discomfort you are experiencing. Become its friend and try to breathe into whatever it is that you are experiencing.  Continue to breathe, noticing your breath and how your body is feeling. Over time, you may notice that your feelings of anxiety become less threatening, your ability to cope much stronger, and your life more tranquil.

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