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How To Mindfully Manage Your Anxiety
Mindfulness has been defined as the process of bringing your attention and awareness to experiences occurring in the present moment. This process can be more difficult when what we are experiencing in the present moment is anxiety. The feeling comes in all shapes and sizes, from basic first date jitters to a full blown panic attack. It can be tempting to just want to get rid of the emotion completely since it’s so uncomfortable to feel, but attempting to avoid our anxiety can actually end up increasing it. One of best ways to combat and control anxiety is to first understand it. I want to help you understand your anxiety a little better, and hopefully help you learn how to manage it with a more mindful approach.
Why do I get sweaty when I’m nervous?
It’s important to know that the primary purpose of anxiety is self protection. When our brain perceives a threat, our body responds with the fight, flight, or freeze system. It tries to prepare to the best of its ability to either freeze, fight, or run away from whatever is perceived as dangerous.
Some of the physical symptoms you might feel are:
- Shallow breathing and faster heart beat to feed more blood to the muscles
- Muscles tense up and shake or tremble
- Light headed, dizziness, clouded mind
- Sweaty palms for the body to stay cool
- Nausea from the digestive system stopping
This system works great if there’s actually something physically threatening in the room with us, but most of the time this system is activated when we aren’t in any physical danger. We might be thinking about an upcoming deadline, a conversation we had, or maybe we’re worried about paying our bills. Our modern day struggles still trigger the same threat response where our body thinks we are in actual physical danger.
Breathing as a light switch
Let’s say a person is about to make a speech in front of a group of people. If that person is afraid of what those people might think or nervous about making a mistake, the threat system is going to be activated. They might start to get nauseous, their heart might beat faster, and their hands start to tremble. Now that we know about why those physical symptoms are present, we now can understand that they are unnecessary since we are in no immediate physical danger.
So in order to relieve ourselves of the physical symptoms of anxiety, we must send the message to our body that we are safe. One way to do this is by slowing down our breathing. When we slow down our breathing using mindfulness breathing techniques, it turns off the threat response in our body like a light switch. Our body recognizes that there can be no physical threat if we are able to breathe slowly and deeply. But what if our mind is still racing with worrisome thoughts? Our body will continually be activated by the threat response. To truly mindfully manage anxiety, we not only have to pay attention to the physical, we must also challenge the mind.
Helpful coping thoughts
The mind does not know the difference between thinking about something threatening and actually experiencing something threatening. When we are feeling all the discomfort of anxiety and unsure why it’s happening, we might start to judge it: “Why am I feeling this way?” “Will other people notice?” “What’s wrong with me?” These judgmental statements enhance our fears, and actually trigger our anxiety even more.
If we understand the power our thoughts have on our anxiety, we can start focusing our mind towards more helpful thoughts. If we are mindfully approaching the anxiety, we want to start off by acknowledging its efforts at helping us survive. We might think, “Thank you for trying to protect me, but I am safe right now.”
Here are some more coping thoughts to choose from:
- I am protected
- I am capable
- Everything is going to be okay
- This too shall pass
- I can tolerate discomfort
- This feeling is temporary
Knowledge is power
The last thing to note when mindfully dealing with anxiety is to pay attention to and get to know your triggers. Depending on our life experience, each person is going to have different triggers that activate their threat response. Sometimes we might have triggers that are outside of our awareness which can be confusing. There might be a certain smell that can bring you back to a time when you felt afraid, and your body responds as if it is in danger. If we are starting to practice a more mindful approach to our anxiety, it’s important to be compassionate and kind to yourself when faced with certain anxiety triggers. Acknowledge that your body is only trying to protect you, and it’s now up to you to start to guide yourself to safety next time you are dealing with anxiety that feels overpowering.