How Mindfulness Helps with Anxiety
You know those times when you feel like you are in a little bit of a panic. It might start with one simple little thought that turns into one tiny worry. Then it brings you to another worry, and another worry, and before you know it, you feel like the world is crashing down on you. And, most of the time the things you are worried about are either out of your control or not going to happen anyway. So, you spent that time working yourself up, losing sleep, eating too little (or too much), and being so stressed. This is where mindfulness can help. Now … I still struggle with being able to stop the snowball effect. However, learning mindfulness has helped me in some situations so I thought I would share! I’ll open up a bit here as well about what I have been doing the last month. I am enrolled in a program at The HOpe Center called Stream. It is a 3 hour ‘program’ each week, plus 1 on 1 therapy every two weeks. We go for 12 weeks, then a 2 month break, and start the next program in the fall. It is a two year commitment and I couldn’t be more excited. The goal behind this program is to teach skills to manage and thrive in todays world living with a mental illness. The first 3 weeks were aaallll about mindfulness. At first, I thought what the hell did I sign up for, mindfulness is crap … give me some real skills. Week 4 I realized how important mindfulness actually is. The skills I am learning are something I feel if taught in school, we would have a lot less problems as adults! Anyway … back to mindfulness ;)!
What is mindfulness?
Some people get a bit uneasy when they hear words like "mindfulness" and "meditation" because either they "aren't religious" or they aren't "into that kind of thing". But, let me clear something up. When I say "mindfulness" here, I'm not talking about anything religious. You can tie it in with your religion if you want, but you don't have to. But I'm talking about learning how to control your thoughts.
This is a foreign concept to a lot of people. They think that their thoughts just come into their heads and that's the end of it. But it doesn't have to work that way. We can actually CHOOSE our thoughts. That means you don't have to think about what will happen if you lose your job, are diagnosed with a disease, never get married, or how you will handle if a sinkhole opens up and swallows up your house (And this is a real worry sometimes … I had a sinkhole outside my apartment and that thought had definitely crossed my mind until they fixed it). We can control what we focus our mind on and that's what "mindfulness" is all about. It's being "mindful" of what we think about. That being said, I took a sea plane to visit my sister on the island this past weekend. And the thought that if the pilot has a heart attack while flying – I am totally and utterly ****ed! Mindfulness did not help in this case because I was stuck in Catastrophizing. I did over 2 hours of mindfulness in the middle of the night until I said screw it! If I’m meant to die today – that’s how I’m going out. Again … total catastrophizing. Did I mention that I’m still getting the hang of this whole mindfulness practice?
The benefits of mindfulness
Mindfulness is going to benefit both your mental health and your physical health. For your mental health, it's going to teach you how to take back control of your thoughts. That way when your mind starts racing and you can feel the anxiety setting in, you know what you need to do in order to stop it.
For your physical health, mindfulness is going to teach you how to gain control of your breathing and slow your heart rate. If you pay attention when you start to get worked up, you start to take shallow quick breaths and your heart rate increases. This helps to lower your blood pressure. You'll also be able to improve your sleep, which in turn will help you in numerous other ways physically. I know if I have a few days of poor sleep I’m screwed! The anxiety and panic creep in really fast.
How to practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is simply purposefully choosing to think about something that is either neutral or positive. For example, let's start with focusing on your breathing. When you're feeling anxious turn your thoughts and focus from the things that are stressing you out to your breathing. Think about taking deep and slow breaths. Inhale through your nose while filling your entire midsection with air all the way to the bottom of your belly. Loosen your jaw. Then slowly exhale out your slightly open lips. Focus on your breathing strategy and nothing else.
Or, you can choose an image to think about. This works best when you also think of a verse, quote, mantra, song, or something else with words. You can picture the image that you have chosen while repeating the saying over and over again in your head. This helps to fill your head with things you are choosing, making it more difficult for your mind to wander.
If you want help getting started there are apps that you can use that guide you through the process. I love the calm app.
It takes a little work
I'll be honest, learning to control your thoughts is hard at first. It actually feels like work trying to constantly monitor what you're thinking about and then overtaking the worrisome thoughts with different ones. I am exhausted after doing some mindfulness work. But stick with it because the more you practice it the easier it gets and the faster, you'll be able to gain control of your thoughts. I’m on week 4 like I mentioned, and I love my 5-15 minutes of mindfulness.