General Anxiety Disorder is a very common condition that affects many of us at some time in our lives. At any one time it is estimated that least 10 million people in the US have been diagnosed with GAD and are actively seeking treatment through medication or some form of cognitive therapy.
In essence recurrent anxiety is a form of intense worrying about health, work, fear of the future or a wide range of situations that may occur in the future that creates an immense amount of emotional suffering. So what can we do to control our anxiety levels?
It is important to understand that anxiety, like most emotional reactions, has a structure. It is not a random process but is produced by the combination of two components: Thought structures, and associated Emotional Feeling Energy.
We are all familiar with the patterns of recurring negative thinking: the thought loops that maintain and amplify worry and anxiety. This internal dialogue can be relentless and often hits us in the early hours of the morning, if we can sleep at all! This negative thinking tends to solidify into generalized beliefs about the future, about ourselves and other people that takes on a life of their own. We become consumed by worry about things that may never happen. But, most importantly, the worry thinking does not in any way help us deal with the objective reality of things that need our attention. In fact the reactive thinking makes us less able to cope, leaves us feeling drained and confused.
Clearly, the path to controlling anxiety must involve changing these internal negative thought loops and beliefs. However, most people find this extremely hard to do. They know at a conceptual level that the worry is irrational and not helpful and is causing them to become ill, but no amount of self-talk seems to change the anxiety. This is because there is another component that is actually much more important than the content of the negative thoughts and beliefs: Emotional Feeling Energy. This is what gives meaning and power to our thoughts, and in anxiety formations, large concentrations of emotional energy become attached to the words or beliefs. With this understanding, we see that if we can find a way to release this trapped energy, then the thoughts and beliefs will lose their power and compulsive domination of our thinking and will tend to be replaced by more appropriate thoughts. The negative thought may still arise out of habit, but without the emotional investment, it has nowhere to go and in time it will fade away.
Focusing on releasing the trapped, frozen emotional energy that has become attached to habitual thinking is one of the primary focuses of Mindfulness Therapy. First we train ourselves to identify these negative thought reactions. This is most important, because we cannot change what we cannot see. Therefore, we must make our reactions visible by paying very close attention to catch them as and when they arise. But after mastering this, we shift our attention away from the content or story that forms the cognitive structure of the anxiety reaction to the emotional feeling quality that gives it power. This is called “sitting with the emotion.” We learn to sit with our anxiety, without getting caught up in further reactivity and thinking, or in trying to attack the negative thoughts. We are, in fact, learning to turn our attention towards the reaction, and this changes everything.
Jeff, a successful software engineer, suffered from crippling social anxiety and suffered from panic reactions; fearing that he would freeze up when asked to talk about his work at conferences or even in group meetings at work. He would notice his heart racing and he was obsessed with worry that he would faint right there in the middle of the event or presentation. He hated leaving home, hated travelling and was very fearful of any new situation.
In a session of Mindfulness Therapy, Jeff learned to identify these habitual patterns of anxiety-producing thoughts and then learned to sit with the feeling energy that surrounded the thoughts at the heart of the emotional reaction. Rather than becoming consumed by the contents of the anxiety thinking, he learned to focus attention on the feeling itself. As he did this, he began to notice details about the internal structure of the feeling energy. This surprises most people when they start mindfulness therapy. They have never actually looked into their feelings before. Thoughts about them for hours; suffered at their hands; but never actually sat down and looked at what this “feeling” actually is.
What Jeff noticed is that the anxious feeling was clearly associated with bright colors, with intense red and orange, and that these colors felt hot. The more he looked at the feeling, the more he learned about its internal structure. He also noticed how the color seemed to take the form of a fuzzy cloud, a fog that surrounded his whole body.
This kind of sensory and experiential detail is very important because they are tangible, and Jeff clearly felt that these colors resonated with his anxiety feeling. The power that leads to transformation is always in the details, not the abstract ideas or thoughts about an emotion. When a person says, “I am anxious” they are only experiencing a superficial level of the emotion and this is very difficult to change because it is so abstract. Once a person gets down to the sensory details such as the color, shape and temperature of the emotion, or where it is located in the body, then they have something very specific to relate to and to change. We can experiment with making subtle adjustments to the color and form of the emotion and monitor how this changes things. In Jeff’s case, he found that when he imagined surrounding the hot red colored feelings with the vastness of the night sky the level of his anxiety dropped from an 8 to a 4 on a scale of 10. When he imagined looking at the red feelings as if it were a star, the anxiety dropped to a 2.
This simple change in his inner imagery allowed him to change the level of anxiety dramatically, and this was followed by a major shift in his perception of the situation and in his beliefs and self-confidence. The psychological transformations followed this fundamental change at the feeling level, and this is very typical because the beliefs depend on feeling energy to give them meaning and power. As you change the imagery you change the feeling, and as the feeling energy is released the beliefs and cognition change in direct proportion.
The other exciting aspect of Mindfulness Therapy is that it not only facilitates the resolution and transformation of suffering, such as anxiety or depression or anger, but it also brings about a fundamental shift in our identity as we start to break free from our habitual patterns of reactivity. Jeff started to experience himself more as the night sky rather than as the hot spot of anxiety: He begins to see himself as the vast spacious presence of the awareness rather than the contracted state of emotional reactions. This changes everything.
1. Sit down and get comfortable. Close your eyes. Allow yourself to relax and practice basic mindfulness of breathing to steady the mind.
2. Open the field of your awareness until it feels like a large space.
3. Introduce an anxiety emotion into this space and experiment with just sitting with it as you would with a friend: looking and listening very carefully with interest and an open mind.
4. Find the color that best fits the feeling.
5. Experiment with surrounding that color with another color. Try the exact opposite color first and notice the shift in feeling intensity of the anxiety.
6. Develop this imagery and try other modifications in size, position and movement.
7. Continue monitoring the change in intensity on a 1-10 scale. When the anxiety has reduced by at least 50% open your eyes and take a break before returning for another round.
8. Repeat the whole process 5 to 10 times for 3 to 4 days. Notice how your perceptions change each day.
Now, of course it is easier to do this with a skilled mindfulness therapist, but you will probably be quite surprised at how quickly things change once you get down to the detailed sensory level, made possible through focused mindfulness.
If you notice some particularly dramatic effects that you would like to share, please email me and describe your findings. Besides working with a therapist you can also try this with a friend, if you can find someone willing to listen and provide that mindful presence that is so essential for this transformational process.
Peter Strong, PhD is an author, spiritual teacher, Professional Mindfulness Psychotherapist and Online Therapist, based in Boulder, Colorado, who specializes in the study of mindfulness and its application in Mindfulness Psychotherapy for healing the root causes of anxiety (Online Therapy for Anxiety), depression (Online Therapy for Depression) and traumatic stress (Online Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction).
Besides face-to-face therapy sessions, Dr Strong offers an Online Counseling Service via Skype. Visit http://www.counselingtherapyonline.com or visit the home site for The Boulder Center for Mindfulness Therapy at http://www.mindfulnessmeditationtherapy.com. Email inquiries are most welcome. Request a Skype session of Online Therapy today to give you mindfulness-based techniques to overcome your anxiety.
You can purchase a copy of Dr Strong’s book ‘The Path of Mindfulness Meditation’ at Amazon.com, Amazon.ca and Amazon.co.uk and Barnes&Noble.com. Also available on Kindle.
The Path of Mindfulness Meditation