Can I Ease Anxiety by Practicing Mindfulness?
How to start living more in the moment to improve overall health.
Posted Aug 12, 2020
Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worry, fear, apprehension, nervousness, or unease. It can also cause physical changes such as insomnia, nausea, headaches, increased blood pressure, and heart rate. These feelings can be difficult to manage and can make daily life challenging. Approximately 25% of stroke survivors experience anxiety to varying degrees. I certainly experienced anxiety and it became a major obstacle affecting many aspects of my life after my stroke.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of bringing your attention to the present. It is asking yourself, “What is happening in my life right now at this moment?” Mindfulness includes making intentional and non-judgmental assessments.
Mindfulness doesn’t mean we ignore our past or future, but instead, we take a break and become more aware of our thoughts in the current moment. This allows us to reflect. Is there any truth to our thoughts? Are we judging ourselves based on an event that happened in the past? Are we worrying about a possible scenario that might occur in the future?
Mindfulness, simply put, means that you are bringing awareness to where you are now, what you are doing, and why you are doing it, without any judgment.
We improve mindfulness by learning to detach from anxious thoughts. This is achieved by practicing self-awareness and identifying tension in the body and mind.
In other words, by learning to recognize when anxiety is beginning to build and bringing your focus back to the present, this allows you to be able to understand what the cause is and consider what you can do to prevent your anxiety from building. Mindfulness teaches you to have greater control. You will learn to have control over your thoughts, versus your thoughts having control over you.
Living in the past or the future
Let’s consider what dwelling on the past will accomplish. Will it change the past? Will the stroke magically unhappen? No! It’s just tormenting you, causing you grief, and wasting precious time and energy.
Next, let’s consider what obsessing about the future will accomplish. When has worrying ever changed the outcome? Never! Once again, precious energy and time are being wasted.
Is it okay to learn from the past? Absolutely! This serves a purpose.
Can you look back to celebrate how far you’ve come? Again, the answer is “absolutely”; it serves a purpose.
Can you look to the future to plan? It’s serving a purpose, so the answer is “Yes.”
However, dwelling on the past and worrying about the future generally serves no benefit and takes the focus away from what’s important. What's truly important is the here and now. Perhaps the present moment isn’t so pleasant, but by dwelling on the past or worrying about the future you’re just adding stress to an already difficult situation. Alternatively, if the present moment is wonderful, taking the focus away can rob you of fully enjoying a great experience.
What is meditation and how to start?
- Meditate while you eat. Mindful eating will help slow you down. Pay close attention to the food, savoring the taste and smell, and experiencing the texture. Learn to listen to your body.
- Stop multitasking and overwhelming yourself. Try doing everyday chores by focusing only on the task at hand.
By making these simple changes, you may already feel the benefits of mindfulness and want to continue down this path. So, what next?
It takes practice to meditate.
Understand that this will take time. Don't expect your first meditation session to be easy. As crazy as it may sound, it takes practice to learn how to do nothing. Learning to quiet our minds is not as simple as it may sound. But trust me, it will get easier.
Schedule it into your day. Over time you may find that those quiet moments spent meditating help you to return to your day more relaxed, centered, and better able to problem-solve.
Begin your session in a quiet environment and a comfortable position. Close your eyes and pay attention to your breathing. Don't change how you breathe; simply observe your body as you inhale and exhale.
You may be tempted to shift your focus elsewhere. Anxious thoughts may pass through your mind. Acknowledge them, but then bring yourself back to awareness by focusing on your breathing.
Start slow, perhaps with a 5-minute session, and then gradually increase the time you spend meditating.
Once you finish your session, open your eyes and notice how you feel. Don't evaluate. Just observe.
Another method that can be useful when starting out is using guided meditations. Online apps and videos are available, and many streaming services have guided meditations. Check resources in your area as in-person classes or meditation groups may also be available.
According to experts, even people who don’t experience anxiety can benefit from self-care sessions focusing on mindfulness. In this fast-paced world in which we live, we are constantly surrendering ourselves to other priorities — work, family, friends, etc. We rarely take time just for us.
Personally, I was skeptical about meditation, but after reading and hearing more and more about its positive effects, I realized that I had nothing to lose by giving it a try. After just a couple of sessions, I could already feel the benefits, and on particularly difficult days, I may include a couple of sessions in my day. One of my favorite sites to focus my breath is Feeling anxious? Take deep breaths in sync with this.
Factors Associated with Poststroke Anxiety: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis : https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5340955/
People who don’t experience anxiety can benefit from self-care sessions focusing on mindfulness: https://www.helpguide.org/harvard/benefits-of-mindfulness.htm