Written by Tonya Swartzendruber
Most of us are familiar with the feeling of trying to escape from or avoid anxiety – we think that if we avoid a particular place/person/conversation our uncomfortable feeling will go away and never come back. But over time, those who pay attention also recognize the futility of escape, since anxiety always comes back and often grows even stronger when we try to avoid. As well, our attempts to escape or avoid anxiety makes our lives get smaller and smaller as the list of things that provoke anxiety grows and grows.
An alternative to avoidance and escape, and the subsequent negative consequences it brings to our quality of life, is turning toward anxiety. In recent years, mental health clinicians have started to talk about mindfulness as one way to stay present in the face of anxiety. Mindfulness has been defined in many different ways but one definition that I like is from Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD. In his book “Full Catastrophe Living”, Dr. Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as paying attention, on purpose, to our moment-to-moment experience. He also emphasizes that mindfulness involves doing this without judgment – that is, we allow our experience to be just as it is without trying to change it in any way.
Easier said than done, right? That’s why those who practice mindfulness do just that: practice. It can take time to develop the capacity to stay present in the face of unwelcome or uncomfortable emotional experience. Luckily, it is not particularly difficult to practice mindfulness; it just takes some persistence, patience and willingness.
When we practice responding mindfully to anxiety, we notice that anxiety (or any emotion, really) is actually made up of multiple components. These include somatic sensations (like heart palpitations, sweaty palms, shortness of breath), anxious thoughts, and urges for behavior (often avoidance or escape). When broken down into these components, anxiety begins to feel more manageable and this pause to notice the components of anxiety in a mindful way can give us an opportunity to respond skillfully instead of simply trying to reduce or get rid of our anxiety.
To get a taste of what mindfulness of the present moment is actually like, I recommend a short simple practice called the Three Minute Breathing Space. Practices like this one integrate the key components of mindfulness: Awareness of the present moment with acceptance. The exercise below is adapted from the book Mindfulness and Psychotherapy by Drs. Germer, Siegel and Fulton and can be found at www.mindfulness-solution.com.
Step 1 – Awareness: Become aware of the present as it is unfolding moment by moment. Notice your body sitting or standing or lying down. What are you experiencing right now? What thoughts are present? Do you have any somatic sensations? Any feelings?
Step 2 – Gathering Attention: Bring attention to each in-and-out breath, wherever breath sensations are most easily felt – this may be in the chest or in your belly rising and falling, or in your throat or nostrils. Recognize the breath as an anchor to the present moment. Just notice your breath and don’t try to change it.
Step 3 – Expanding Attention: Now include other experiences in your awareness, such as your facial expression, or an itch, or your thoughts and feelings. Again, just notice these experiences and don’t try to change them.
When practiced regularly, exercises like these can train us to take pause when we are overtaken by anxiety. This pause allows us to remember that we have a choice in how we respond to anxiety – we can choose to avoid, or face our fears and live the life that matters to us.