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Anxiety is a Mindfulness Problem

Not everybody is sold on Zen.

Diego Cervo/Shutterstock
Source: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock

When was the last time you walked across glass in your bare feet to get to the grocery store?

Never? I know, it's a ridiculous question. And asking anxious therapy clients to accept their racing thoughts and rapidly beating hearts, while doing nothing, can sound just as logical.

However, paying attention to what’s going on inside you and around you, and not trying to control the contents of your mind are essential tools to get you on the right side of calm.

Is it hard?

You bet.

But not as hard as you may think.

We all get nervous, unfocused and stressed, and for the most part, we all know the common solutions to our anxiety.

For example, I avoided writing this article by engaging in mindless tasks. Zoning out was meaningless and unproductive, but watching videos of Siberian Husky pups frolicking in the snow was easier and more fun than tackling a tough topic.

I knew this bad habit would jack up my anxiety come nightfall, but yet, I slacked on. When self-awareness did creep in I was tempted to: take deep breaths, visualize the completed article, and envision a good night’s rest knowing I met my goal.

These are not difficult actions.

But without intentional focus on self-awareness, they are.

Your mind will not become calm, confident and clear, if you do not pay attention to paying attention:

You can’t stop boredom from bothering you if you don’t realize you’re checking out in the first place.

You can’t overcome avoidance if you don’t recognize you’re dreading reality this very moment.

You can’t practice steps to feel calm if you don’t listen to your body’s stress signals.

Awareness is everything to anxiety.

The solution isn’t identifying why you’re anxious in the first place (though that knowledge has its place), but recognizing the signs of anxiety before nervousness, panic and rapid breathing hijack your emotional wellness.

The challenge is to replace “Why is this happening to me?!” with “How can I be more aware of what’s happening to me?”

Once we recognize the signs of stress, the fixes are (relatively) easy.

The problem isn’t just being aware of what’s going on — it’s remembering to be aware. This remembering is what mindfulness is about. Too often we forget to be aware. ~Leo Babauta

Awareness of Anxiety Signals

Being bothered by boredom. Life is, by and large, not about entertainment. Preparing reports, studying statistics and changing diapers can be a drag. Viewing repetitive tasks as necessary evils makes them less tedious when you focus on the bigger picture.

Avoiding reality. Nobody likes to feel pain, but learning coping skills to deal with problems is a critical emotional wellness skill. Unhealthy coping mechanisms like hitting the bottle, turning the other cheek, and acting like everything’s fine are temporary fixes. Knowing all feelings go somewhere, and unaddressed conflicts only get bigger can prevent you from checking out with Xanax.

Not working your calm game. Dealing with feelings like dread and uncertainty can be scary. Life flows better when it’s organized and predictable. Why do I have to have anxiety? I want my old life back! may seem like a logical question. However, rumination and worrying about which shoe’s going to drop next never leads to calm. Remembering there was a time when your life was more manageable can motivate you to practice calming techniques. Intentional and daily focus on deep breathing, positive visualization, meditation, and reframing negative thoughts into healthier, more realistic thoughts are key actions.

These examples above are common behaviors when you're in an anxious state. But how do you become aware? And how do you remember to be aware?

How to Remember

The problem with remembering to be aware is that we get caught up in our daily routines. For example, once we open a computer, a series of habitual impulses takes over and we’re suddenly two hours in and five tabs deep. It could be some time before we realize we’re lost in busy work.

Here are a set of tools for remembering.

Consider the damage. First, you need to admit is that anxiety is bad for you—if you aren't worried about the consequences, you won’t take action. So what damage is your anxiety causing? Well, it might be stopping you from feeling comfortable in social situations, or from testing your boundaries and pursuing new adventures. It might be leading to depression, and making your home life miserable.

Commitment. Committing to awareness is a great tool for remembering. I’m a fan of writing reminders on Post-Its. Telling a trusted person in your inner circle amps up the accountability, too. Plus, you can ask this person to check back and make sure you’re remembering to remember!

Set your intentions. When you begin a task like checking email, or running errands, identify what your intention is with that activity. Be mindful and notice your physical triggers. Are you hungry? Tired? Edgy? Pay attention to the speed and depth of your breath, and check in with your heart rate. Because our physical self runs on autopilot, it’s easy to forget that we still need to monitor our bodies and stay on point.

Check yourself. Have a handy tool to help you be aware. This could be setting an egg timer or an alarm every hour, or so. I recently discovered the Chime sound on my iPhone and it’s a lovely reminder that I need to be be “here.”

Recognize triggers. Signs that your mental well-being is off include worrying about being productive, compulsively checking your mobile device, and a rising urge to do something other than the present task. These signs might be physical (increased heart rate) or they might be behavioral (yelling at your kids)—but you can learn to recognize them with practice. These red flags are telling you that something is amiss.

Your anxiety didn’t start yesterday, and it won’t go away overnight. Time, practice, and commitment are your allies. Solving the mindfulness problem makes anxiety a more manageable beast.

If you’d like to test out the skills above, you can join Team Happy for A Month of Meditation & Mindfulness. Click here for details.

Thank you for being here.


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