“A lot of what we do to not feel bad is likely to make us feel worse. It’s like that thought experiment: ‘try not to think about pink elephants – the kind that are very large and very pink!’. Once an idea is planted in our minds, it’s strengthened every time we try not to think about it.” -Christopher K. Germer, PhD

Were you picturing pink elephants there? I have to admit, I did… and I’m not especially gifted at visualization! One time in church, the pastor asked us to close our eyes and visualize something, and my husband, who KNOWS that I basically SUCK at visualization, laughed when I whispered in his ear, “I see black”. LOL But for those of you who ARE good at visualization, the above experiment about thinking about pink elephants might be quite easy, and difficult to NOT think about when someone mentions to not think about it.

Now you may ask, according to my title, what does all this have to do with mindfulness OR anxiety? Good question! I’m glad you asked! The above quote from the book “The mindful path to self compassion” by the above named author, goes on to say this: “Similarily, whatever we throw at our distress to make it go away- relaxation techniques, blocking our thoughts, positive affirmations- will ultimately disappoint, and we’ll have no choice to set off to find another option to feel better.”

Now before I go any further, since this particular blog is supposed to be about me, I need to mention that anxiety is something that seems to run in my family. I have had my bouts of anxiety over the years as well, everything from insomnia and allowing that to cause anxiety, from ordinary stressful life events to traumatic experiences, to allowing anxiety to hold me back from reaching my goals and dreams because the symptoms of anxiety can feel debilitating.

How have I learned to deal with anxiety? What tools have I come up with? What exercises have I tried? Everything from avoiding anything stressful that causes anxiety, to prescription medications to help deal with symptoms, to counseling, etc. And I have learned a lot from my research and have implemented a lot of great techniques since then. But first, let us take a look at what anxiety is, and some of it’s most common symptoms.

Are you constantly tense, worried or on edge? Does your anxiety interfere with your work, school or family responsibilities? Are you plagued by fears that you know are irrational, but can’t shake? Do you believe that something bad will happen if certain things aren’t done a certain way? Do you avoid everyday situations or activities because they cause you anxiety? Do you experience sudden, unexpected attacks and heart-pounding panic? Do you feel like danger and catastrophe are around every corner?

The above are signs and symptoms of an anxiety disorder. The most common symptoms of anxiety include emotional and physical symptoms which are easily identified:

Emotional symptoms of anxiety:

  • Feelings of apprehension or dread
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling tense and jumpy
  • Anticipating the worst
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Watching for signs of danger
  • Feeling like your mind’s gone blank

Physical/Physiological symptoms of anxiety:

  • Pounding heart
  • Sweating
  • Stomach upset or dizziness
  • Frequent urination or diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tremors and twitches
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Surge of overwhelming panic
  • Feeling of losing control or going crazy
  • Heart palpitations or chest pain
  • Feeling like you are going to pass out
  • Trouble breathing or choking sensation
  • Hyperventilation
  • Hot flashes or chills
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Nausea or stomach cramps
  • Feeling detached or unreal

Knowing is half the battle, which is why I am including the above symptoms, as some people don’t recognize anxiety for what it is, or are unaware of most of those symptoms being related to anxiety. For further reading on the subject, I suggest visiting the following website: http://helpguide.org

When I first began investigating tools to help manage anxiety, I came across a lot of great ideas:

  • Practice relaxation techniques
  • Adopt healthy eating habits
  • Reduce alcohol and nicotine
  • Exercise regularly
  • Get enough sleep

I also thought these things were great tools:

1. Create a “worry period”. Choose a set time and place for worrying. Set a start and end time for your worry period. During your worry period, you’re allowed to worry about whatever’s on your mind. The rest of the day, however, is a worry-free zone.

2. Postpone your worry. If an anxious thought or worry comes into your mind, make a brief note of it and and postpone it until your worry period. Remind yourself you will have time to worry about it later, so you can continue on with your day.

3. Go through your worry list during the worry period. Jot down your worries and anxious thoughts throughout the day, and now is the time you get to worry about them. If the worries don’t seem important anymore, cut your worry period short and enjoy the rest of your day.

They suggest that post-poning worry is effective because it breaks the habit of dwelling on worries in the present moment.

Another worry tip: Ask yourself if the problem is solvable. Is what you are worrying about real or imagined? a ‘what if’ type of worry. If the problem is an imaginary ‘what if’, ask yourself ‘how likely is it to happen? Is your concern realistic? Why? Can you do something about the problem or prepare for it, or is it out of your control?

If the worry is solvable, start brainstorming. Make a list of all possible solutions you can think of.

If the worry is unsolvable, remember that worrying helps you avoid unpleasant emotions.  Worrying keeps you in your head, thinking about how to solve problems rather than allowing yourself to feel the underlying emotions. But you can’t worry your emotions away.  While you are worrying, your feelings are temporarily suppressed, but as soon as you stop, the tension and anxiety bounces back.  The only way out of this cycle is to embrace your feelings.

One of the mindfulness techniques I learned was the practice of nonresistance.  Accept anxiety and that you feel anxious.  Be compassionate to your anxiety and embrace the fact that worry and anxious thoughts are normal.  The more you worry about it, the bigger it gets.  If you are able to practice compassion on yourself, the anxiety itself can diminish, merely by accepting the fact that you feel anxious. But just because you ‘feel’ anxious, doesn’t mean you need to let it control you or hold you back.  You can still accomplish your goals, finish your profects, deal with traumatic situations, by simply accepting the underlying emotions and continuing on anyway, despite the fact that you ‘feel’ anxious.  One suggestion I was given was to look at your feelings as if you were watching the clouds in the sky and watching them pass by.  I am still working on this process, as it is still difficult not to feed the anxious thought with lots of attention.  But I am recognizing that feelings pass.  And to embrace what I am feeling in that moment, no matter how painful, stressful or anxious it is.  Resisting it merely postpones the problem, and often intensifies it.  Not dealing with it and avoiding it, makes it bigger than it really is.  It also causes all sorts of health problems.  The best way to deal with anxiety, is to feel it.  And don’t let it stop you from moving forward anyway.  What’s wrong with doing something you feel anxious about, while feeling anxious? Just do it feeling anxious.  Lots of people do.  If every person who ever felt nervous before going onstage to perform gave way to their anxiety and refused to go onstage and perform, they would be holding back their talent and preventing the audience to hear/watch/observe their show.  They also woudln’t get paid or famous.  Imagine Lady Gaga not going onstage?  She would fade off the popularity charts pretty quickly.

There are many tools for anxiety, some work better than others, some work better for certain types of people.  If you see something here that works for you, feel free to try it!

I have two more tools that I have personally tried that I have found helpful for myself.

First, a cognitive approach, as I am wired to think that way myself:

The above mentioned website resource I sited suggests:

Stop Worry by questioning the worried thought:

  • What’s the evidence that the thought is true? That it’s not true?
  • Is there a more positive, realistic way of looking at the situation?
  • What’s the probability that what I’m scared of will actually happen?
  • If the probability is low, what are some more likely outcomes?
  • Is the thought helpful?
  • How will worrying about it help me and how will it hurt me?
  • What would I say to a friend who had this worry?

Cognitive Distortions that add to Anxiety, Worry and Stress

  • All-or nothing thinking -looking at things in black and white categories, no middle ground
  • Overgeneralization- Generalizing from a single negative experience, expecting it to hold true forever
  • The mental filter- Focusing only on the negatives while filtering out positives. Dwelling on the one thing that went wrong, rather than all the things that went well.
  • Diminishing the positive- Coming up with reasons why positive events don’t count “I did well on the presentation, but it was just luck”
  • Jumping to conclusions- Making negative interpretations without actual evidence. Making assumptions
  • Catastrophizing- Expecting the worst-case secnario to happen
  • Emotional reasoning- Believing the way you feel reflects reality.
  • Shoulds and should-nots- Holding yourself to a strict list of what you should and shouldn’t do and beating yourself up if you break any of the rules
  • Labeling- Labeling yourself based on mistakes and perceived shortcomings (I’m a failure, an idiot, a loser)
  • Personalization- Assuming responsibility for things that are outside your control (It’s my fault my son got in a car accident. I should have warned him to drive carefully in the rain)

Mindfulness techniques to try:

  • Acknowledge and observe your anxious thoughts and feelings. Don’t try to ignore, fight, or control them, like you usually would. Instead, simply observe them as if from an outsider’s perspective.
  • Let your worries go. Notice that when you don’t try to control the anxious thoughts that pop up, they soon pass, like clouds moving across the sky. It’s only when you engage your worries that you get stuck.
  • Stay focused on the present. Pay attention to the way your body feels, the rhythm of your breathing, your ever-changing emotions, and the thoughts that drift across your mind. If your find yourself getting stuck on a particular thought, bring your attention back to the present moment.

One mindfulness exercise I try is to breathe deeply.  To allow myself to take 5-10 minutes out of my day to just bring all my focus on my breathing.  I count from 1-10 and then from 10-1 backwards.  All I am doing is paying attention to my breath and then gradually, I begin to pay attention to the sounds around me.  When a thought interrupts the process, I give it my attention for a few moments as it is likely trying to point out something I need to pay attention to.  But I gradually bring my focus back to my breath.  If I am interrupted by a random thought, I begin counting again from 1-10.  This helps me notice how frequently I am being distracted in the process.  And throughout the process, I practice self-compassion.  There is no way to do this exercise wrong.  Just have compassion towards the interruptions and keep breathing.

The purpose of the above exercise is that what is happening in our body as we become increasinly more and more anxious, we are triggering the sympathetic nervous system which generally is responsible for activating the fight or flight response in our body, allowing our reaction to perceived danger to intensify physiological symptoms preparing to deal with the situation (most of the symptoms listed at the beginning of this article). Whereas, the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for things like rest and digest. Deep breathing brings heightenedphysiological symptoms of anxiety, back to a state of rest, by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, initiating a sense of calming the body down.

These are some of the things I have studied and applied to my own life when I combat anxiety. Remember, anxiety is normal. It is a part of life. Whenever we try to deny or fight a natural part of life, we upset the body’s normal way of healing itself. I hope some of these tools help you as they have helped me!

One closing scripture verse to leave you with: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of it’s own.” Matthew 6:33-34

And don’t forget, if you are relating to this, and feel like you need some additional help, Sign-Up Today for my monthly webinar on stress management!! If you’d like to look at another great resource, check out my one-on-one Boundary Development Program which will help bring control back into your life!

Cheers!

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If you have any questions on today’s blog or would like help on taking steps forward, I’d love to hear from you!  Post a comment below or visit my website and register for your Complimentary Strategy Session to discuss your situation in more detail.

Katie Meilleur – Certified Relationship Life Coach

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