We are living in turbulent times. If you are paying attention at all, it’s hard not to feel anxious about the state of the world we live in and the fate of humanity. While violence, war, and natural disasters have occurred throughout human history, we seem to be experiencing them today with a new level of intensity – from the effects of climate change to the rise in terrorist activity – while our leaders and politicians seem more concerned with their own approval ratings than providing actual leadership.
We also live in a “500-channel universe,” a world of seemingly infinite possibilities for distraction. Distraction is a common coping strategy against anxious thoughts or worries, but when we are bombarded by TV and radio programming that aims to offend and shock, advertising that urges us to spend money we don’t have in a never-ending quest for happiness, and the constant stream of bad news, our nervous system gets stressed, and may become overloaded.
The pace of daily life has sped up, to a speed that may actually exceed the brain’s ability to process and respond to our experience in an effective way. When I was growing up, we were promised that technology would make our lives easier, and give us more leisure time (remember “The Jetsons”?) Instead, we have less free time, with our cell phones, laptops, and tablets keeping us connected to the office and to everyone we know 24/7, even while we’re supposed to be sleeping or on vacation. This lack of down time adds to our stress and anxiety.
Anxiety and worry are normal human emotions, emanating from the part of our brain that houses our survival instincts. (Read what Rick Hanson, PhD says about the brain’s “negativity bias.”) Anxiety can be passed down in families, both as a genetic predisposition and as learned behavior. Everyone experiences anxiety at times, though some people are more sensitive to it, while others are anxious all the time. Anxiety is one of the most common reasons that people take medication (or use alcohol, drugs, or food to “numb out”). So what are some healthy ways to relieve anxiety, and calm the anxious mind?
One way is to “unplug”: see if you can turn off your devices when you’re eating and sleeping, and leave them at home while you enjoy a walk in nature. Stop watching the news on TV before bedtime, and read a book instead. Can you go for a whole day without checking email or texting? Finding ways to reduce the amount of stimulation to your brain may lower your anxiety level.
Another way is to challenge your assumptions and thoughts about whatever is making you anxious. If you’re prone to playing the “worst case scenario” game in your head, you may be scaring yourself, and making things worse than they actually are. The gold standard of anxiety treatment is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which teaches you to change how you feel by changing your thoughts and behaviors. Check out this new CBT workbook: The Road to Calm
Because we experience anxiety in the physical body, as well as in our minds, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), a newer variation of CBT, incorporates meditation and yoga practices. As a CBT practitioner for over 25 years, and an MBCT practitioner for the last seven, I’ve found that mindfulness and meditation practice improve the efficacy of CBT, and are also stand-alone practices that can be very helpful to manage anxiety and relieve its effects.
At its most basic level, mindfulness invites us to wake up to the present moment, and notice that we’re breathing – “I’m awake and alive, right now.” While this might not strike you as a reason to rejoice, if you stop to think about it, that we breathe automatically is truly amazing. Mindfulness is about stepping out of autopilot mode, and using the breath and body to ground us in the present. However, if you’re experiencing anxiety, this can get dicey.
A typical mindfulness meditation practice is to focus on the breath. Many people find that this promotes relaxation and calmness, but if you are prone to anxiety, focusing on your breath can actually make you more anxious. You might notice that your breathing is kind of shallow, or a bit rapid, so you try to take a deep breath or slow your breathing down, but then the harder you try the more it seems to speed up, until it feels like you can’t breathe at all! Has that ever happened to you?
And did you then conclude “meditation is not for me?” The problem here is that bringing conscious awareness to automatic processes in the mind and body, while beneficial for most people, can backfire for anxious people, who are already hyper-focused on things that other people don’t even notice, like their breathing, heart rate, and worrisome thoughts. But if you give up on mindfulness and meditation so soon, you don’t give your mind and body a chance to reap the benefits, which are signficant. Herein lies the paradox of mindfulness.
Whether it’s your breath, or your life, if you start with wanting things to be different than they are, you create more stress and anxiety for yourself. Mindfulness invites you to just observe what is, without judgment or worry, and without needing things to be different. If you can do that, then change may come, often effortlessly. You might try this brief breath meditation:
Still not sure about meditation? Perhaps some mindful movement, like Yoga, Tai Chi, or Qi Gong, can help. One of my favorite forms of mindful movement is walking meditation, where we focus our attention on the sensations involved in walking, slowly and intentionally, just being present with our experience without needing to go anywhere. Walking this way, we find there’s actually a lot to notice, so we’re not just focused on the breath, and this, plus the gentle, rhythmic movements of our body, can help to calm the anxious mind. If you’d like to try walking meditation, here are some instructions:
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