Mindfulness Practice For Managing Anxiety

To some degree, we all experience anxiety. Anxiety is an emotional response to a perceived or real threat. Our bodies have a built in alarm system that helps us deal with real danger. This alarm system is the autonomic nervous system which activates the fight-flight-freeze response.  When confronted with real danger, our system lets us know that we must respond by either fleeing, fighting or being still until the threat passes. In such cases, anxiety is a helpful tool, however, when no real threat is present and our autonomic nervous system is activated due to excessive worry, stressful narratives and intrusive thoughts, then anxiety becomes problematic. Our bodies are in a constant state of activation and our nervous system works overtime. Oftentimes, people complain of stomach aches, rapid heart beat, sweating, insomnia or poor concentration. These symptoms are a result of a body that is consistently and chronically managing an adrenaline response. Mindfulness or Mindful Awareness can be an effective practice for calming the nervous system and engaging the senses in order to respond with awareness as oppose to reactivity.

The autonomic nervous system is comprised of two parts. The sympathetic nervous system (flight-fight-freeze) and the parasympathetic nervous system which is our rest and regenerating system. Mindfulness is helpful in engaging the parasympathetic system in order to restore balance and regulate our bodies. Mindfulness is the simple practice of bringing awareness to experience, thought and sensation in the body. When one is able to recognize and build tolerance for the sensations that arise, they become less reactive to their emotions and able to cultivate presence, clarity and curiosity. Riding the waves of emotions allows for an organic resolve without attaching limiting beliefs or narratives.  The practice of mindfulness and learning to bring awareness to the felt senses can help clients trust their natural wisdom, build tolerance for negative emotions and discomfort and aid in communicating feelings.

Anxiety is a result of external triggers causing sensations in the body that are most often below consciousness. In other words, we aren’t aware that our heart is beating faster, there is tension in our belly’s or our hands have become hot. Through mindful awareness and connection to the body we are able to stay with the sensation, observe it and become curious about it. When one is aware of the felt sense in the body, he/she can slowly build tolerance for those feelings and create space between thoughts and reactivity. Reactivity can come in the form of anger, irritability, avoidance or reaching for relief through over eating, drugs and alcohol, sex or other high risk impulsive behaviors. When unaware of sensation, it is common to layer in emotional labels such as stress, anxiety, anger and depression which are then followed by narratives or stories. We buy into the beliefs and thoughts surrounding the feelings. Once we’ve identified with the stories we are no longer present. Our sensations and feelings are not causing us to suffer but rather, what we are telling ourselves about WHY we are feeling a certain way activates the adrenaline response.

Learning the practice of Mindful Awareness can have a tremendous impact on emotional regulation and reducing symptoms of anxiety. When sensation or feelings arise, one becomes less overwhelmed and fearful. Mindfulness allows us to lean into the experience without judgement or attachment to thoughts and facilitates healthy, prosocial communication.

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