At the Austin Mindfulness Center, the most commonly reported symptom is anxiety. Austin isn’t alone when it comes to high levels of anxiety. In fact, anxiety disorders are on the rise nationwide, and it is no coincidence that this is occurring at a time when we are more distracted, busier, and more engaged in multi-tasking than ever before. The use of social media and other technology, while not bad in itself, has also contributed to an increase in reported levels of anxiety across the country.\
While social media is not inherently bad, neither is anxiety. It is actually a normal, generally adaptive aspect of our human makeup. It helps us to get up in the morning and achieve tasks and goals. While we all experience anxiety as a normal part of life, for some of us it can turn into a problem that causes significant distress and requires professional treatment. So what makes normal anxiety become something so troublesome that it interferes with our ability to live a fulfilling life?
Surprisingly, the answer is that it is often a result of how we are responding to anxiety. Generally speaking, anxiety is uncomfortable and we want to get away from it. But when we try to get away from anxiety and make it go away, our efforts often backfire and we can unintentionally increase the intensity and frequency of our anxious thoughts and feelings. Some ways in which one might try to escape anxiety include distraction, alcohol and other drugs, worrying, and avoidance of certain places and situations.
It’s important to understand that most of our efforts to get rid of anxiety involve some form of avoidance. It is these efforts to avoid that can trap us into a painful and sometimes debilitating battle with anxiety. Avoidance is a way of saying that we can’t deal with anxiety, which paradoxically gives it more power. So what is the treatment then? Instead of avoiding anxiety, we must get to know it and actually practice accepting it. We must let it come and go without trying to force it to go away.
For many of you, I know that sounds hard and unwanted. But this practice lies at the heart of mindfulness, and it is the path that can free you from your battle with anxiety. Mindfulness is about learning to slow down, to be still, and to develop a new relationship with your inner world. When we practice mindfulness, we can help ourselves move from avoiding anxiety to becoming more open to and accepting of it. This is why mindfulness practice is such an effective treatment for anxiety.
Mindfulness practice teaches us to open up to unpleasant experiences in a way that actually makes them less painful. It serves as a tool that will allow us to do what we previously thought was impossible. We can actually learn to bear things that are unpleasant, and we can do so intentionally. We no longer have to unknowingly react in ways that increase our suffering.
One way that mindfulness practice helps us with anxiety is that it gives us the ability to actually see the relationship between our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors instead of being caught up in them. The link between these aspects of our experience plays a critical role in whether or not anxiety becomes a problem. When we slow down and observe our experience, we are able to do this. When we are busy and distracted, the mind is clouded and we have little room to observe what is happening inside of us.
When we can start to see how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are related to each other, and to anxiety, we have the option to change these patterns in a way that lets anxiety come and go more freely without becoming overwhelming.
But why would one want to be accepting of anxiety, you might ask. Why would you want to be with something that feels bad? How do you move toward accepting something that feels so painful? It isn’t easy and it takes practice, but being kind to yourself about it can help you to approach the discomfort. In fact, mindfulness also teaches us to be kinder and gentler toward ourselves. Instead of forcing ourselves to deal with uncomfortable feelings, we actually learn to support ourselves as we move toward the uncomfortable. We move toward it slowly, and with care.
The next time you feel anxious, practice being still and breathing with the feeling. Use a curious stance to investigate the feeling in your body and just let it be there. This works best if you start with low levels of anxiety and work your way up. The idea is to start learning to be okay with feeling anxious. Although this is the opposite of our natural tendency, it really is the key to freeing ourselves from a problematic relationship with anxiety.
I also encourage you to make an appointment with one of our therapists. Each of them has experience working with anxiety, and they can all help you to apply the skills of mindfulness to your anxiety so that you can deal with it in a more helpful way. Therapy also provides a safe space for you to talk about the things that might be contributing to your anxiety. Being more open about things that you are struggling with can often help alleviate anxiety.
The bottom line is that it's okay to feel anxious. It is an unavoidable part of life. Don’t judge yourself or blame yourself for these feelings. Instead, remind yourself that it is ok. You do not need to run from anxiety. Rather, you can gradually learn to let it be there. You will see that it comes and goes, just like the weather.
If you would like to practice being with anxiety in a new way, you can start by trying this 10 minute guided meditation, Leaning into Anxiety.