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Manage Anxiety with Mindfulness

Mindfulness can help with managing an anxiety disorder, but check if your health professional agrees first. Here are some of the key ways in which practicing mindfulness can help you to manage anxiety:

  • Approaching feelings instead of avoiding them. Anxiety perpetuates itself through your avoidance of the feeling, which is a natural response because the sensations are unpleasant. But avoidance is generated by a sense of fear, which in turn creates more anxiety. By approaching and accepting the feelings step by step, mindfully in the present moment, you can create a healthier relationship to the anxiety.

  • Refusing to identify with your anxiety. Mindfulness shows you how to observe sensations and emotions without identifying with them; that is, recognizing that you and the anxiety are separate. When you separate from the feeling you can watch it arise and perhaps pass away too. Essentially, you’re finding out how to widen your perspective and take a step back from your experience.

  • Stepping out of automatic unhelpful thoughts. Anxiety is characterized by worry. When you become mindful, you notice unhelpful thought patterns earlier and so can shift your attention to somewhere else, such as your breathing, the sensations in your feet or on to whatever task you need to do.

  • Developing the ability to tolerate difficult physical sensations or emotions. Through mindful practice, you become better able to be with difficult experiences without reacting to them. When you’re able to do this with your anxiety, you’re less likely to make the feeling worse.

  • Generating a sense of control. Mindfulness offers you a moment of choice about how you meet your feeling. As a result, you begin to feel in control, which can positively reduce your sense of anxiety too.

Here’s a practical exercise that you can try out to manage your anxiety when it arises. It’s called the STOP exercise and stands for: Stop, Take a breath, Observe and Proceed.

  • Stop. If you’re in the middle of some work or other activity, take some time to stop if you can. If you feel that you’re so busy that you can’t even spare a few minutes to stop, you probably really do need to stop. The act of stopping whatever you’re doing may not be easy, but does have a positive effect.

  • Take some mindful breaths. In this stage, take a few slow deep, mindful breaths. Feel the breath as it moves down into your belly. Ensure that your stomach is expanding as you breathe in and contracting as you breathe out. In this stage you’re recentering your attention instead of becoming lost in a sea of thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations.

  • Observe. When you’re ready, notice your bodily sensations. In particular, if you can, shift your attention towards the physical discomfort. See if you can allow the bodily sensations to be just as they are. Feel them together with your breathing, with a sense of kindness instead of judgment.

    You’re a human being and feeling anxiety is quite natural. Use your breathing as an anchor, to help support your attention on the bodily discomfort. Then, after observing your body for some time, you can move onto emotions and thoughts. Just watch the thoughts and emotion and give them the space to pass away in their own time, if they want to.

  • Proceed. Gently bring your attention back to whatever you need to do. As you shift your attention back to the outer world, give full attention to your senses instead of getting too lost in thought, if you can. Continue your daily activities with a greater sense of acceptance and acknowledgment of your feelings as they are, knowing that all feelings are temporary and do pass away in time.

Now complete the following worksheet, particularly when your anxiety levels feel overwhelming, and write down what effect the STOP exercise had.

You’re not trying to get rid of the anxiety. You’re trying to shift your attitude towards the anxiety, to one of acceptance, curiosity and non-judgment.

Date and Time You Practiced the STOP Exercise Effect the STOP Exercise had on Your Thoughts, Feelings, Bodily Sensations and General Attitude

You can use this STOP exercise for all sorts of different situations where you need to ground yourself, not just when you feel inappropriate anxiety. You can even use the practice a few times a day, no matter how you’re feeling, to improve your ability to focus and turn off your automatic-pilot mind.

Here are a few daily tips for managing anxiety mindfully:

  • Take time every day to practice some mindfulness meditation. Ideally about 20 minutes a day at least, but even a few minutes are better than none at all.

  • Carry out the STOP exercise or the mini breathing space meditation three times a day.

  • Do one thing at a time rather than multitasking. When you’re doing that one thing, give the activity your full attention. This approach prevents the temptation to be distracted, which can lead to greater anxiety.

  • Practice gratitude. Think about what’s going well in your life before you go to bed, when you wake up in the morning or at any other time during the day.

  • Spend time doing an enjoyable pastime mindfully every day. This activity can be gardening, cooking, knitting, walking in nature, stroking your cat or polishing your car. When you give the activity your gentle, mindful attention, you soothe your mind and improve your ability to shift your attention away from believing unhelpful thoughts.

Write down one thing you’re going to commit to doing this week that you think may help to manage your anxiety. After the week is over, note down what effect it had and try another item for the following week.

What you're going to do this week to try to manage your anxiety:

You noticed the following effects:

Mindfulness is not the only way of managing anxiety. You can also try exercise, relaxation (for example, deep breathing or yoga), adjusting your diet, cutting out alcohol, nicotine and caffeine, joining a support group or reading self-help books on anxiety recommended by health professionals. See what works for you!

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