From Panic to Peace
A mindfulness practice is a valuable way to manage anxiety.
Posted August 14, 2017
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 18.1 percent of the US population suffers from chronic anxiety. But that number only includes those individuals who have been formally diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. The percentage of people who get anxious but don’t meet criteria for a formal disorder is much, much higher. That’s because anxiety is a natural human response to life circumstances. Though it affects everyone differently, it’s a pretty universal fact of life. At some point in our lives, we’ll all experience some form of anxiety. The question is, how do we manage it?
Inevitably, I end up talking to most of my clients about ways they can cope with the natural anxiety that arises in the course of everyday life. Whether it’s managing impossible demands and deadlines at work or waiting for medical test results, there’s always something in their path that they want to deal with as effectively and steadily as possible. The work we do in therapy or coaching to help them achieve this objective is twofold—first, we address their relationship to the issue provoking their anxiety; then we work on helping them be with and cope with the anxiety itself. Since everyone responds differently to anxiety, I always engage in unique conversations with my clients and tailor unique interventions to help them manage it. But there are a few general suggestions that are broadly applicable. I’ll share them with you here in hopes that they support you the next time anxiety gets you in its grips.
Be Present to What’s Happening. As I mentioned before, the first part of managing anxiety is getting clear about what’s causing it in the first place. This means being highly attuned to your experience, paying attention to what you’re encountering in the world and the feelings it’s provoking within you. One of my clients speaks to me often about her boss—a perpetually stressed out small business owner—and the effect he has on her. For a long time, she’d come home from work completely depleted, having spent most of the 8-hour workday in a state of anxiety. It wasn’t until we began working together that she was able to identify what was happening throughout the course of the day to get her in such a state. Once she recognized that her interactions with her boss were the source of her anxiety, she was able to create a shift in her experience. The awareness my client demonstrated is the first step to managing anxiety. The more aware you are of your day-to-day experiences and how they affect you, the greater chance you’ll have of minimizing your anxiety. It helps to have a mindfulness practice, remaining as grounded as possible in the present moment and attuned to what’s unfolding within it. When you’re mindful of what’s happening around you, you can quickly notice what’s occurring and prepare to deal with it as effectively as possible. A mindfulness practice will also help with being aware of how anxiety feels and moves through you. As you become familiar with the signs of anxiety—especially the initial ones—you can get better and better at stopping it from progressing. Being present to what’s happening and maintaining an in-the-moment awareness of your experience will support you with responding in a calm and measured way to your anxiety triggers.
Check Your Breathing. One of the first questions I ask my clients when we’re addressing the topic of anxiety is, “How good are you at noticing your breath?” Most people look at me quizzically, because their breath isn’t something they think about often. This might be true of you, too. How aware are you of your breath right now? I’ll bet that you’re much more aware of it at this moment than you’ve been at any other point throughout your day. And that’s okay. Most of us tend not to pay much attention to our breath. But getting connected to the breath is one of the best ways to manage and diminish anxiety. Most adults do a pretty poor job of breathing. It might sound silly, but it’s the truth. We breathe enough to keep ourselves alive, but not enough to get the maximum value out of each inhale and exhale. And when we’re anxious, our breath gets even more superficial. Most people—whether they suffer from acute anxiety or deal with the typical nervousness and stress of everyday living—find that taking a few deep, mindful breaths goes a long way in soothing and relaxing them. Once you get present to your experience, as I spoke about previously, it’s time to get connected to your breath. Find the spot in your body where you’re most aware of your breath. It might be your nostrils, or your chest, or your belly. Once you connect with it, breathe intentionally, tracking the movement of your breath throughout your body. Make an effort to take deep, belly breaths—the same way a baby does. As you inhale, let your belly expand. As the air moves through you, feel your chest opening and your shoulders slightly lifting. Hold your breath at the top for just a moment, and then slowly and intentionally exhale, feeling your body relax and your belly button move toward your spine when the breath is complete. I promise that just three of these intentional breaths will have you feeling calmer, more relaxed, and much less anxious than you began. Breathing deeply sends more oxygen to your brain, stimulates the part of your nervous system responsible for promoting relaxation, and calms your body down. Furthermore, when you pay attention to your breath, you shift your attention away from the flood of thoughts that tends to accompany stress and anxiety. Your breath is one of the most potent tools for anxiety relief, and it helps significantly if you use it often. So find a way to make mindful breathing a regular practice. I always recommend to my clients that they set reminders in their phones to go off at various times throughout the day, reminding them to slow down, take a few deep breaths, and get connected. Practicing this often will help you maintain a lower baseline of arousal and will come in handy whenever you get anxious.
Check Your Thinking. In the course of a typical day, you’re likely to come across plenty of people, events, and situations that have the potential to trigger anxiety. But getting anxious is really an inside job. What I mean is that the way we think about those people, events, and situations is what determines whether or not we get anxious. Psychologist Aaron Beck, known as the father of Cognitive Therapy, identified a series of cognitive distortions—a.k.a. irrational ways of thinking—that trigger and exacerbate stress and anxiety. Some of these distortions include the following:
All or Nothing Thinking — Seeing things in a rigid, either/or kind of way (e.g., “If I don’t get every question right on this test, I’m a total failure.”)
Personalization — Taking things personally; blaming yourself for things that are out of your control (e.g., “My colleague was in a bad mood today because I’m not pulling my weight enough around here.” )
Catastrophizing — Anticipating and predicting the worst; filling in the blanks of uncertainty with doomsday predictions (e.g., “I’m going to get fired if I don’t make it to work on time today, and nobody will ever hire me in this industry again.”)
Magnifying — Exaggerating and blowing things out of proportion (e.g., “These expense reports are a mess. This is way too much work for me to handle. I’m never going to get this all done in time. This always happens. I can’t deal with it!”)
When you familiarize yourself with these cognitive distortions and other irrational lines of thinking, you can catch yourself and redirect your thinking, thus minimizing or halting your anxiety.
Take Your Time Responding. When you’re anxious, a false sense of urgency can arise, prompting you to react hastily when it isn’t necessary to do so. Your thoughts move more quickly than usual in an anxious state, so it’s easy to become impulsive and feel as though you need to take immediate action. But this isn’t the case. You’re much likelier to respond effectively to a situation if you’re thinking clearly and taking your time. When you’re anxious, you’re essentially handicapped; your emotions are turned up, and it’s difficult to think clearly and rationally. When something triggers your anxiety, go slowly and deliberately through the process of responding. Think carefully and critically about how you want to make sense of what’s happening; then move forward with intention. Following the three suggestions above will support you in getting centered so you can reflect on your response to the situation at hand. One of my clients told me just this week that learning to go slow when she’s anxious has made a monumental change in her life. As she explained it, “When I notice the first signs of anxiety, I start paying attention to how I’m breathing and what assumptions I’m having about what’s going on. It slows me down so I don’t just freak out like I used to and feel out of control. It makes me feel powerful to be able to think clearly and not do things I regret because I’m anxious or worked up.” Like my client, you can learn to go slow and get in the driver’s seat of your experience when anxiety arises. This—as my client put it—is a pretty powerful thing.
Norman Mailer said that “the natural role of twentieth century [wo]man is anxiety.” He’s right. If we’re not acting with awareness, it’s easy for us to be driven blindly by anxiety. But being aware is a process and a practice; and when we engage in it deliberately and systematically, we can minimize our anxiety and navigate through our lives with more peace, presence, and purpose.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2016). Any anxiety disorder among adults. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-anxiety-disor…