Treating Anxiety

Mindfulness as A Strategy to Manage Anxiety

In this paper the writer has attempted to outline strategies to be done in stages to help one manage anxiety. This paper can be given out at the beginning, middle or end of treatment. Let’s begin with a definition of mindfulness – mindfulness is returning and attending to the present moment experiences with openness, curiosity and a willingness to be with what is.

The first strategy is learning to notice your thoughts. When any thought is created within your mind, it can come from a variety of sources. We usually think that it just pops in. We sometimes feel we have no control over it and in reality we have little control over what arises in our thoughts but we can control which thoughts to think about or follow. This may be new information to some but it is a skill one must practice; noticing one’s thoughts.

There are numerous strategies to notice thoughts, one of the most effective one is Mindful Awareness. Use this technique when you first notice that you are having lots of thoughts. Usually these thoughts start from one thought but that thought creates another one and another one until your mind is not in the present moment anymore. At the moment, you notice you are lost in thought, you are having a mindful moment. At this point, you can then breath and notice any sensation in the body, thus distracting your mind from continuing that thought. If you are able, you could also close your eyes and focus your awareness on your breath feeling it as it enters and leaves your body. This concentrated attention allows the awareness to be refocused as you bring your attention back to the breath. Do this for 5-10 minutes, in an effort to practice this technique, you will also notice that you might begin to become more relaxed. As we breath in oxygen, this increases the blood flow in our brains, releasing chemicals that can relax the mind and body.

As you are doing this mindful awareness strategy, new (or the same or similar thoughts) will arise. The next strategy is to notice those thoughts and begin to label them. You can label them “future thoughts” or “past thought” or a simple use a word like “work”, “son” or “frustrated”. When to notice a thought, and bring your attention back to the moment or label it, you are sending out a parallel thought to the one you mind previously had. This parallel thought eliminates the other thought because your mind can only have one thought at a time. In essence, you have interrupted that though process by noticing or labelling the thought. Of course, our minds are very busy and most likely, a new or similar thought may arise. Again, just notice it.

In doing these strategies, you are retraining your mind and changing your conditioned thoughts to come back to the present moment. It takes a little practice, but it works. The mind has habits and typically, the habit is to wander off in thoughts which bring up feelings and then actions. As we train the mind to stay more in the present, it won’t get lost in needless thoughts and will have more time to enjoy this moment as it is. This may seem challenging, but think about this - these are thoughts, not you, just thoughts, we have so many thoughts each day. It has been estimated that 90% of them we don’t have to believe, but we tend to. Thoughts arise and they go, just like passing clouds, your job now is to notice them, label them and not get engaged in them. Some people have reported that after a few hours or days labelling their thoughts and bringing their awareness back to the present moment, that their thoughts reduce.

You can label your thoughts;

· “Past Thought” or “Future Thought”

· “Thought about something I will do tomorrow”

· “Thought about me wanting to hurt myself” or make up your own label.

Now, many times, thoughts lead to feelings, we can also use this labeling technique for feelings. This technique is typically easier for feelings because we have less feeling than thoughts and the feelings can be felt in the body. When we redirect the mind to body to notice feelings, we can guide the mind to notice where in the body we are feeling this feeling. For example, sadness, worry or tension. Using either one of these techniques, the goal is to train the mind to notice the thoughts and feelings, once we do that we return the mind back to the present moment. The one part of you that is always in the present moment is your body. Now for some, the body might not be a comfortable place to be so we can choose a part of the body that does feel safe and gently guide the mind to that place. As you return your mind to the body, you want to notice where you are feeling this feeling in the body.

Remember, you will always have thoughts and feeling that are both positive and negative, we don’t want to end your thoughts or feelings and have a mind with no thoughts. The goal here is to notice the experience of the thoughts and feelings and train the mind to return to the present, this reduces anxiety as most anxious thought are in the future or the past. As we keep the mind in the present, the anxiety cannot arise. So, we are refocusing the mind on thoughts about your surroundings; your breath, your body and this moment. Another way to refocus or redirect the mind from the anxious thoughts and bring it to the present moment is to focus your attention on to the five senses. So, you can increase your awareness of

- what you hear - turn up the music in the car and listen to the words

- what you see – notice the people around you

- what you smell – before you eat, or the smell of spring in the air

- what you taste – while you eat notice the flavors.

- what you feel – the breath, the body or water around you if you are swimming

The idea here is to bring your awareness back to this present moment by noticing your thoughts and feelings, labeling them and bring your mind back to the moment/the five senses in the body. You can bring it back to the physical sensations of your body; your feet and the ground below you, your hands or breathe. As you do this, you begin to become mindful of what you are doing at this moment.

Other techniques people use is to distract your thoughts, by changing them to something positive. Go jogging, watch TV, somehow engage yourself in activities and allow you to become more engrossed in your present sensations and the present moment, that is where anxiety does not reside.

After you have done thought labeling for a few weeks, the next part is to notice the types of thought we are having, especially, judgments or critical thoughts we have about ourselves. Sometimes, we attach negative thoughts and judgments onto those thoughts. For example, we might have a thought that I should call my friend. This thought might become pervasive and it continues until I start to then place judgments on the thoughts, i.e. I shouldn’t have those thoughts, I am wrong to have those thoughts, why didn’t I call him. As this happens, we can begin to bring our awareness into the experience and labels them “judgments about myself” or critical thought”. This can be a very helpful strategy to manage these thoughts which over time can affect our mood and our level of happiness.

This idea of thought labelling also has a physiological effect on our brain.

Written by Mark Kennedy, LCSW