Can Mindfulness Help With Anxiety?

It depends.

Mindfulness meditation is a simple yet powerful technique to help ease the speedy mind so we are more present in the here and now. It can help with anxiety, but success depends on a variety of factors, and it’s not the best thing for everyone at any given time. Below are some general guidelines on how to apply mindfulness, and some reflections on when it can be helpful and when not. If you have any doubts, consult with a professional who has experience with mindfulness meditation and anxiety.

What is Mindfulness Meditation?

Sitting mindfulness meditation is possibly the simplest thing one could ever do. In fact it’s not actually doing much of anything at all: it’s really a practice of just being. However, although it is exceedingly ordinary and simple, it is not at all easy. It’s not easy, because for the most part we are not accustomed to being simple, to simply being.

Indeed, we are accustomed to staying busy, to filling our days with endless planning and going and doing. Rarely, if ever do we slow down and just be present with our experience in a simple manner. Rarely do we take the time to appreciate the ordinary richness and goodness of our life.

Of course there are bills to pay and there are issues with our job and our family and our health, and many other challenges. But at the same time the sky is vast and open, the trees are magnificent, and we have five senses to relate with the world. And we have a heart to connect with our self and with other people, and to appreciate that even though life is difficult, it’s also wonderfully precious.

The Potential of Mindfulness for Anxiety Relief

When we are addicted to staying busy and forgetting to appreciate our life, it’s natural that we become chronically stressed. Then, for many of us, chronic stress can easily develop into chronic anxiety. There are other causes of anxiety of course, such as trauma, emotional tightness, mental rigidity, being overwhelmed with fear, and others.

As a response, mindfulness meditation has the potential to be relieving for many of these anxiety sources. However it’s not a matter of simply sitting down and meditating, and it’s also not appropriate for everyone’s situation at any given time.

Mindfulness meditation is subtle, and it’s important to have some understanding of the practice before you begin. It’s important to have some understanding of the purpose of the practice, and to have clear instructions that are based in how the practice actually works.

These days MacMindfulness has become a problem, as you can learn a mindfulness practice in a superficial manner without any grounding in how the practice actually works. So if you decide to try mindfulness meditation to help you with anxiety, try and find a source of instruction and guidance that is authentic to the true nature of the practice.

What is the Purpose of Mindfulness Meditation?

There are many benefits of mindfulness, however the most essential purpose is to learn how to be present with one’s experience in an ordinary and appreciative way. Being present means that our awareness is here with what is happening now in the present moment. For example if you are eating ice cream, your awareness is fully enjoying the sensations and feelings of the experience of eating the ice cream.

You are tasting the sweet creamy flavour, you feel the icy coldness in your mouth and on your tongue, and you savour the richness as you swallow each liquidy delicious mouthful. This is of course different from eating ice cream while at the same time being distracted by thoughts of how stressful your day is, what you ‘re going to do later once you are finished the ice cream, or feeling guilty that you shouldn’t be eating ice cream because it’s bad for your health.

Mindfulness meditation is a practice that helps us learn to be more present for our life. This includes the ice cream, but also the pain and struggles that we encounter everyday. Normally we think we should avoid the unpleasantness and pain of life, but the fact is, those are also part of the deal, nobody gets to have just the good stuff. Naturally so.

Mindfulness practice has the potential to help us be more present with our experience, to struggle less, and to relax more.

How Does One Actually Do the Practice?

Mindfulness meditation can be done in various ways, but a basic format that has proven useful in the broadest sense is to practice seated, either on a meditation cushion on the floor, or on a chair. Following is a basic instruction in sitting mindfulness meditation:

Take a relaxed but uplifted posture, with your pelvis balanced horizontally, and your lower back straight and strong, but not rigid. The idea is to have a relaxed and strong back, and a soft open front. Relax your shoulders and rest your palms on your thighs. Allow your neck and head to rest on top, relaxed. Have your eyes open, with a soft yet clear gaze on the floor some two or three meters in front of you.
Sit with this posture, and just settle in. Feel the earth below you, feel your body, and feel the space around you.

Do this now for a minute or so before continuing.

Then, once you feel settled and present, gently place your awareness on the feelings of your body breathing. Feel your body as the breathe moves in and out. Don’t hold on tight, just notice, and let go.
Do this now for a minute or so before continuing.
Next, when you find that you mind is thinking about something, simply notice that, and use the mental label: Thinking. Silently say to yourself, “Thinking” to acknowledge you’ve been thinking.
Then return your awareness back to the breath. Come back to the experience of your body breathing.
Then, when you notice that you are thinking about something, again simply label it “Thinking,” and return your awareness to your body breathing.

So that’s the basic meditation practice.

It’s important to note that the instruction is not, “Don’t think, but only focus on the breath.” This is not the instruction and is a misunderstanding of the practice. The instruction is, “Be aware of your body breathing, and when you notice you are thinking, simply and gently return your awareness back to your body breathing.” This is a very big difference.

In the beginning it’s recommended to do the practice for five minutes, once or twice per day. Choose a regular time to do it, as this will help you to stabilize and settle into the practice. Find a place that’s quiet, turn off your cell phone, and just commit that time fully to your practice.

What Mindfulness is Not

Mindfulness is not a mental exercise where we try to intently focus on our breath and push away our thoughts. Trying to do the practice with this type of ambition will fail every time, and will just set you up for struggle and disappointment.

The fact of the matter is that it’s impossible to stop your thoughts, as the mind is naturally expressive. The mind is like a mirror, which constantly displays various thoughts, feelings, sensations, and impressions. So if we are meditating with a goal to achieve some imagined state of peace that’s free from thoughts or uncomfortable feelings, we’re going to have a very difficult time.

How Does it Work?

Mindfulness meditation works by creating an open space where we can naturally be. By simplifying our experience, mindfulness helps us rediscover a basic open ground. It’s like going out in nature. When you go for a hike in the forest, suddenly you remember the simple goodness of nature. Mindfulness is the same. By spending quiet time with your self you can just be, and become aware of the simple goodness of you we are.

This includes being with our thoughts and sensations in a straightforward way. When we notice thinking, we can relate with it honestly and simply. Then we can return to the body breathing.

Another aspect of mindfulness meditation, an aspect that is somewhat ironic, is that it involves being present also with how stressed and speedy our mind is. Part of the journey of rediscovering the basic ground of simplicity is getting in touch with how our mind actually is now, just as it is. For most people in the beginning this is very painful, as we discover our state of mind is a like a dump truck filled with gravel, rushing downhill on a bumpy road.

At this stage most people give up, telling themselves, “I can’t meditate, my mind is too crazy.” However, this is in fact the fist stage of a successful meditation practice. You actually were present with your experience, you actually noticed exactly what is happening. And so the journey begins.

Philosophy of Mindfulness Meditation

According to the tradition of mindfulness meditation human nature is open, clear, and good. At the base level nobody wants to suffer, and we don’t want others to suffer. We are naturally kind, strong and connected. And at the same time, life is brilliant, ever changing, and uncertain. So our existence is good, and it is also vivid and impermanent.

This begs the question, “Why then, do we become so confused, and why do we cause so much harm?” According to the tradition of mindfulness, the confused and destructive tendencies we see in our self and in the world are secondary, and are due simply to the fact of having lost touch with our nature. We don’t tend to pay attention to our deeper nature, and society generally doesn’t encourage us to do so.

Especially in commercial driven materialistic society where we have less grounding in lineage and tradition, we lose touch with the nature of reality, and we find it difficult to connect with a meaningful existence. When we look around at the way our world manifests, it’s not necessarily easy to see the good qualities of life. This is all the more true as big business and politics become increasingly corrupt and destructive.

Yet beneath the confusion and struggle, at the base of our existence is a source of strength and goodness. When we slow down and make time to actually notice our experience, gradually we discover that there is something good happening, and that we don’t have any reason to complain at all.

For all of us, we are never a lost cause, regardless of how far we may feel we’ve gone astray. It’s always possible to move back towards the open goodness of our nature. There are many ways to reconnect in this way, and mindfulness meditation is one method that has the potential to be quite effective.

Avoidance as a Cause of Anxiety

A major cause of anxiety is how we habitually try to avoid our naked experience. We try our best to avoid any rough edges of life, and to maintain a safe and comfortable existence. But in actuality this is impossible to do. And as much as our life energy is dedicated to the project of creating a secure nest, that much we fuel anxious tendencies.

A big part of what drives our human suffering is that we are perpetually trying to avoid the unpleasant and painful aspects of life. Of course, it’s normal and natural that we will experience pain and loss, because everything is constantly changing. Yet we forget this impermanent nature. Instead we take it personally. We tell ourselves that we failed, feeling like we did something wrong, or we just didn’t try hard enough. And so we panic and struggle to secure our ground.

At the same time, it’s natural that we want to avoid uncomfortable experiences, and that we don’t want to suffer or have pain. However as usual, it’s all about balance. If we become chronically averse to feeling anything uncomfortable, it can lead to all kinds of problems with our state of mind, including struggles with anxiety. Furthermore when we are constantly fighting with reality, we also shut out the possibilities for joy, connection, and love.

Practicing “Touch and Go” with Anxiety

As you practice mindfulness, anxiety will naturally arise at some stage. When it does, allow yourself to just touch it, to actually feel what it feels like. Notice where you feel the anxiety, in whatever parts of your body are involved. For example if you feel it in your chest, allow yourself to just feel it. Feel that for a moment, and then let it go, just come back to the body breathing. Then, touch in with another aspect of the anxiety sensations, for example if you feel it in your stomach, or your shoulders, or wherever. Touch in with the sensations for a moment, and then let it go and return to an awareness of your body breathing.

Practicing touch and go in this way trains you to get used to feeling the anxiety in your body without becoming completely overwhelmed by it.

Making Friends With Anxiety

The practice of sitting mindfulness has great potential to help you ease anxiety struggles. It can help you change your relationship with yourself, and with your experience of anxiety. In a nutshell, mindfulness is powerful in helping one to make friends with one’s experience. It’s less about trying to change your experience, and more about being honest and gentle with the experience you actually are having.

By sitting quietly with our self, we gradually learn to accommodate whatever is happening. The practice short-circuits our speedy mind and our tendency to check-out every time something uncomfortable comes up. We all have habitual ways we avoid and edit our experience. Mindfulness helps you see through these knee-jerk reactions, and to hold your seat without running out the door.

Gradually this practice of being present can help you become more comfortable in you skin. It can help you relax with your experience, with your life, with yourself. It can help you enjoy yourself more, and to be gentle when things are difficult. With practice over time we may discover a basic ground of openness and friendliness, where we feel confident, strong, and at ease.

Disassociation

For people who experience significant levels of anxiety, if you are planning to try mindfulness meditation it’s important to be aware of the possibility of disassociation. This is when we become completely caught up in our thoughts to the degree where we lose touch with our body and our senses – we completely forget where we are. Actually most of us sometimes do this in our moment to-moment experience, but with disassociation we do it more deeply and for a longer period of time.

What causes this to happen during meditation? When we are sitting quietly practicing mindfulness, if our experience becomes more vivid than we are used to, we may not know how to process it and so we may disassociate as a way to deal with what’s happening. Since mindfulness short circuits our habitual avoidance patterns, we may find our self feeling naked without the protection we normally use to numb our experience. We may suddenly become vividly aware, for the first time, of how much we are struggling, and if we don’t know how to deal with that we may disassociate.

If you find this happening, stop practicing for a few days or longer. Just drop the whole thing and don’t worry about it. Then, if and when you decide to return to the practice, do shorter sessions than you had previously been doing, and proceed with an attitude of fresh start.

Some General Guidelines

Find a quiet place in your home to practice. Turn off your phone and remove other possible distractions.

Choose a consistent time each day to do the meditation. Try sitting at the same time, be it in the morning, the evening, or whenever works best for you. If that time ends up not working out, assess the situation and try committing to a different time.
Go easy and keep it light. If you become ambitious with mindfulness meditation it will most certainly backfire. The last thing you want to do is further complicate your experience of anxiety, and if you push yourself in meditation you could easily cause more harm than benefit. Practice with a light touch – you can afford to relax.

Do the practice for five minutes at a time. This is a good length to make a good connection with the practice, and with your experience. Sit for five minutes, and then let it go. If you do this for a few weeks and it feels good, then try sitting for ten minutes.
Find a community to meditate with. As a solitary practice mindfulness meditation is very limited. You may make some progress in the beginning, which is great. Eventually however you’ll need the support of others if you wish to deepen and strengthen your experience with the practice.

Conclusion

If you suffer from anxiety and are interested to see if mindfulness meditation can help, certainly give it a try. It has the potential to be of tremendous benefit. There is an ever growing body of research that shows mindfulness can help in a wide variety of ways, including relieving struggles with anxiety.

It’s not a panacea however, and it won’t help everyone. Check with a mental health professional if there’s any doubt. And if you are up to it, try doing the practice with others in a community setting. Most important of all, take it easy, and make the practice light and enjoyable as much as possible.

Leave a Reply