The Mindful Mindset: Managing Anxiety the Mindful Way

"Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones." - Thich Nhat Hanh

Mindfulness encourages us to pay attention intentionally to the present moment and non-judgmentally observe what is happening within and around us.  It is not uncommon to be living on autopilot where our responses become an automatic reaction to external stimuli.  When we are in such a state of automatic reaction, we are disconnected and not experiencing the full spectrum of what life has to offer in the present moment.

Feeling anxious is a natural experience.  The problem arises, however, when we become overwhelmed by our anxiety and it starts to affect our performance and mental and physcial health.  It is easy to confound worry and fear with facts instead of acknowledging that we are encountering anxious thoughts.  Sometimes these thoughts seem so real to us that we start having strong physical and emotional reactions that can ultimately leave a negative impact on our lives. Being more mindful of anxiety can help temper such an experience.  Mindfulness encourages us to create space between what we are experiencing and the non-judgmental “observer” within each of us.  Over time and through practice, we can develop the ability to distinguish between reacting with unawareness and responding with mindfulness.

It is also important to be able to experience our full spectrum of feelings.  Learning to be mindful doesn’t mean that you are cut off from what you are feeling and that you never experience dark storms.  Rather it is bringing your awareness to your feelings and thoughts without letting them control you.  Thus, the first step to managing anxiety mindfully is to non-judgmentally and gently acknowledge that you are feeling anxious.

What does anxiety feel like? Maybe your shoulders start to tighten, your heart starts to pound.  Maybe you start to feel nauseous or lightheaded.  As uncomfortable as it may be, it is important to be open to what you are actually feeling and to neutrally observe what thoughts are currently running through your mind.  To get there, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and take note of what you are actually experiencing in the present moment.

Once you have recognized that you are feeling anxious, the next step could be to practice mindfulness meditation.  You might start with a simple breathing exercise.  Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart.  Begin to notice your in breath and out breath.  As you breathe in, expand your belly out with the breath.  This signals the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates the body's rest and relaxation response.  Stay focused on your breath, using it as an anchor to gently calm the sensations and to objectively create a buffer between you and the thoughts that might be running rampant through your head.  Sit quietly staying with your breath allowing it to soothe the sensations.  Once you start to feel more centered and grounded, you can take a more conscious approach to responding to whatever situation may have created the anxiety.

Be kind to yourself always and know that you are not alone. There are abundant resources to help you manage stress in healthy ways.  Oftentimes the first step is becoming conscisouly aware of the thoughts and feelings at the root of the anxiety.

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