Mindfulness for Anxiety

The present moment isn't always a place of rest. Meditation puts us in touch with our anxiety, and that's why it can be so helpful.

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Anxiety is our body’s way of saying, “Hey, I’m experiencing too much stress all at once.” Which happens to the best of us. But, when that feeling of being “always on alert” becomes background noise that doesn’t go away, that’s when its time to seek help. There are many ways that anxiety can disorder your life. And this guide is not meant to serve as a diagnosing tool or a treatment path. This is simply a collection of research and some practices you can turn to as you begin to right your ship.

Mindfulness is not a panacea. It’s not the right choice for everyone. But, according to some research, when you can create a little space between yourself and what you’re experiencing, your anxiety can soften. But, if you get too used to that low rumble of stress always being there, it can gradually grow, creating a stress “habit” that is detrimental to your health and well-being. Consequently, when we get caught up in patterns of reactivity we create more distress in our lives. This is why it’s so important to discern clearly the difference between reacting with unawareness and responding with mindfulness.

What is mindfulness and how can it help with anxiety?

Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.

Leading expert Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally,” adding: “in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”

When you become aware of the present moment, you gain access to resources you may not have realized were with you all along. A stillness at your core. An awareness of what you need and don’t need in your life that’s with you all the time. You may not be able to change your situation through mindfulness, but you can change your response to your situation.

Try this practice for Calming the Rush of Panic in Your Body:

The Science of Mindfulness for Anxiety

In 1992, Zindel Segal, John Teasdale, and Mark Williams collaborated to create an eight-week program modeled on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Jon Kabat-Zinn—who developed MBSR—had some initial misgivings about the program, fearing the curriculum might insufficiently emphasize how important it is for instructors to have a deep personal relationship with mindfulness practice. Once he got to know the founders better, he became a champion for the program. In 2002, the three published Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse, now a landmark book.

MBCT’s credibility rests firmly on ongoing research. Two randomized clinical trials (published in 2000 and 2008 in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology) laid the foundation, indicating MBCT reduces rates of depression relapse by 50% among patients who suffer from recurrent depression. Recent findings published in The Lancet in 2015 revealed that combining a tapering off of medication with MBCT is as effective as an ongoing maintenance dosage of medication.

What is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy?

A skills-based approach, MBCT asks patients to inquire into, familiarize themselves with, and redirect the thought process that is getting them into trouble (cognitive distortions, or what some people call “negative self-talk,” or “stinkin’ thinkin’”). It takes close attention and stick-to-itiveness to make it work. When CBT meets mindfulness, the emphasis shifts from changing or fixing the content of our challenging thoughts to becoming more intimately and consistently aware of these thoughts and patterns. The awareness itself reduces the grip of persistent and pernicious thought loops and storylines.

Like MBSR, the eight-week program occurs in two-hour weekly classes with a mid-course day-long session. It combines guided meditations with group discussions, various kinds of inquiry and reflection, and take-home exercises. “Repetition and reinforcement, coming back to the same places again and again, are key to the program,” Segal told Mindful, “and hopefully people continue that into daily life beyond the initial MBCT program, in both good times and bad.”

Video: Try the 3-Minute Breathing Space:

This is one of the most popular practices in the 8-week MBCT program. It allows you to shift your attention away from automatic, multitasking patterns of thought to help you get unstuck. It invites you to bring attention to your experience in a wider, more open manner that isn’t involved in selecting, choosing, or evaluating, but simply becoming aware of your thoughts and feelings, your breath in various regions of the body, and finally, sensations throughout the entire body.

Trapped Inside A Painful Mood? This is How Acceptance Helps:

People often stumble over the concept of acceptance as an approach for dealing with difficult emotions and mind states. In mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) groups that I’ve led, this predictably comes up around the fourth or fifth session as participants say “How can I accept this pain?” or “I want to feel fewer of these difficult emotions, not more!” These reactions reflect an underlying calculation that even though trying to avoid or push away negative thoughts and feelings can be exhausting, the strategy has worked in the past, so… why risk using a different and unfamiliar strategy?

By accepting unpleasant experiences, we can shift our attention to opening up to them. Thus, “I should be strong enough” shifts to “Ah, fear is here,” or “Judgment is present.”—Zindel Segal, co-founder of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.

In these moments, rather than answer this question directly, I find it helpful to remind myself of three simple points:

1. Allowing negative emotions to exist in our lives—for the moment—does not mean that we’ve chosen not to take action. The concept of acceptance, as introduced in MBCT, is intended to describe the possibility of developing a different relationship to experience, one that is characterized by allowing an experience and letting it be. Allowing difficult feelings to be in awareness means registering their presence before making a choice about how to respond to them. It takes a real commitment and involves a deliberate movement of attention. Importantly, “allowing” is not the same as being resigned or passive or helpless.

2. Denying that a negative mindset is taking place is more risky for your mental health. The opposite of allowing is actually quite risky. Being unwilling to experience negative thoughts, feelings, or sensations is often the first link in a mental chain that can lead to automatic, habitual, and critical patterns of mind becoming re-established. You can see this when someone says “I’m stupid to think like this” or “I should be strong enough to cope with that.” By contrast, shifting the basic stance toward experience, from one of “not wanting” to one of “opening,” allows this chain reaction of habitual responses to be altered at the first link. Thus, “I should be strong enough” shifts to “Ah, fear is here” or “Judgment is present.”

3. Acceptance helps you work through each unpleasant experience. The third is that the practices of MBCT offer concrete ways for cultivating a stance of “allowing and letting be” in the midst of difficult experiences. In fact, often people “know” intellectually that it might be helpful to be more loving, caring, and accepting toward themselves and what they are feeling, but have very little idea how to do it. These capacities are unlikely to be produced merely by an effort of will. Instead, they require working through the body with repeated practice over time to notice things, like anxiety, may show up as tightness in the chest, or sadness as heaviness in the shoulders.

Bringing attention/awareness to the sensations that accompany difficult experiences offers the possibility of learning to relate differently to such experiences in each moment. In time, this practice of working through the body may allow people to realize, through their own experiential practice, that they can allow unpleasant experiences and still be okay.


4 Ways to Calm Anxiety Every Day

1) Explore your breath: Is it shallow and choppy, or long and smooth? Calm the rush of panic to your body with this anti-anxiety breathing practice.

2) Get out of your head and into your body. Try these 11 ways to engage your senses

3) Explore different approaches. Here are 10 mindful attitudes for decreasing anxiety.

4) Forgive yourself when you’re feeling too anxious to meditate (it happens). Consider these informal practices instead.

Video: Watch 3 Ways to Get Out of Panic Mode

Sometimes it suffices simply to pause and take deep breaths, expanding the inbreath and slowing the outbreath—a technique that helps during 2 a.m. flopsweats.
—Barbara Graham, noted essayist and author

Read more on Barbara’s journey through anxiety.

Explore More Mindfulness Resources

As is typical for mindfulness-based interventions, no overarching body governs MBCT, but a number of very qualified senior teachers have taken it on since the program was founded, and centers in Toronto, the UK, and San Diego offer professional training and certification.

Read More About Anxiety


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A 23-Minute Anxiety Practice 

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Mindful Staff

Mindful Staff editors work on behalf of Mindful magazine, Mindful.org, and the Foundation for a Mindful Society to write, edit and curate the best insights, information, and inspiration to help us all live more mindfully.