Anxiety is a necessary and important part of our body's survival system. It helps us think about and prepare for the future. It's the part of us that squirrels away resources for the winter and prepares for the worst.
But if bouts of anxiety either paralyze us and keep us from our daily activities, or occur so often we're plagued by them, then something may be amiss in our body's survival systems. It may be an important time to reach out for help.
From a mindfulness perspective, anxious thinking can be seen as another thing that brings us out of the present--most likely safe--moment. In fact, using our mindfulness practice can help assuage spiraling anxiety. With mindfulness we can also come to understand that anxiety really isn't about us, personally, it's a survival mechanism that happens on it's own.
We can work with anxiety through the use of the '3 R' approach--Recognize, Release (without judgment) and Return.
When sitting in formal mindfulness practice, we can work with anxious and other thought patterns as they pull our attention from direct experience. First, we can recognize--the first R--they've arisen. What most naturally occurs from this recognition is a release of the thought--we're no longer caught within it. We see it for what it is--a thought.
But consciously releasing it--the second R--unhooks not only our mind, but our body as well. Sometimes there's a tendency to judge ourselves at this moment--that we've been caught yet again by the thinking mind. At this point, in addition to releasing the original thought that pulled our attention, we can also release the judgment about that thought and getting caught. This becomes easier over time when we see first hand how the mind seems to have a mind of its own--thoughts happen without our direction or desire.
The third R, return, brings us back to the present moment and whatever we were paying attention to in our practice--the breath, the sensations in the body, the sounds in the environment, etc. As we sit over time, this practice quickens into habit and we more easily recognize when our attention is being pulled, thus making it easier to release it and return.
As is natural, formal practice spills over into our day to day living experience. When we notice anxious thoughts beginning to arise, we can use the 3 R approach in a slightly modified way--adding a fourth R, reassess:
First, and the most difficult, is to recognize we're caught with anxious thinking. (But really, we can work with any disturbing thought patterns in this way without needing to classify or label them.) Once we recognize them, we can then release and return to the present moment.
Releasing these difficult thoughts can be supported by returning to the present moment--where are we? What are we seeing, sensing, hearing, tasting, smelling? We can even take a few deep breaths with an emphasis on extending the exhale to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. These simple actions can help shift the body's response from the 'overly concerned and survival' mode to the 'safe, rest and digest' mode.
From here, we can reassess the situation. Is there something contained in the thoughts that needs my immediate attention? If so, can I calmly, and with more of my resources, assess the situation and take the steps I need?
These simple actions can help shift the body's response from the 'overly concerned and survival' mode to the 'safe, rest and digest' mode.
As an example, one of my clients was nervous about taking an overseas flight on their own. They were fine with making a flight to a familiar airport and finding transportation to their first vacation spot. But for the second leg of the trip, one they never made before, they lost confidence they could navigate the airports, layovers and eventual taxi ride from the airport to their hotel.
Even though they had taken hundreds of international flights throughout their life, anxiety was getting the best of them--to the point they were considering not taking the trip at all, even though this 18 hour block of travel time was a small portion of the month they would be traveling.
First, I helped them recognize the situation and return to the present moment through anchoring their awareness in their body. This helped shift the biological reaction away from anxiety and into more calm. Once they returned to the present and recognized they were safe and their immediate needs were met, then we could reassess the situation outside survival mode, when they had access to the reasoning part of the brain--the prefrontal cortex.
We took some time exploring worst case scenarios and making a list of things they could do to ensure a safe departure and arrival. Then, we spent some time reflecting how competent and capable they were in the rest of their lives. Even though they were making more mistakes than usual and experiencing more confusion, the truth of their situation is that they were actually really effective in a very complex life.
It was much easier for my client to see from the calm center of the present moment rather than the hyper sensitized experience when anxiety is triggered and running the show.
Mindfulness and anchoring to the present gives us this. It's a practice, not a perfect, though.
If you struggle with anxiety, I invite you try this practice. If you are plagued by anxiety to the point where it cripples you, I invite you to reach out to a behavioral health specialist to get the support you need.
But, most of all, I invite you to not take it so personal. The body/mind/spirit is a very complex set of systems, and while we can influence these systems through thoughts, actions and what we ingest, they are far beyond our absolute control! This isn't about you as a person, this is about myriad systems interacting with myriads other systems. So be kind and gentle with yourself. Have compassion for that which you can't control about your experience and use that compassion to reach out for help.
JoAnn Saccato, MA is a mindfulness teacher, author, life coach, educator, and consultant in Northern California. She is author of Companioning the Sacred Journey and Mindful and Intentional Living: A Path to Peace, Clarity and Freedom