We all feel a little anxious at times. It’s a normal reaction to the more stressful events of our lives, such as a job interview, a driving test or say, a global pandemic.
You may notice a few physical responses, like the sensation of ‘butterflies in your tummy’ or your heart beating faster than usual. But these feelings and responses tend to pass by in time.
However, when your anxious thoughts become excessive—when your problems and worries keep running around in your head, growing bigger and bigger and more upsetting—this can lead to feelings of anxiety that take hold and can feel overwhelming and this is where mindfulness can be really helpful.
In this post, I explain how and why anxiety grips us, as well as how mindfulness helps us unwind it and reconnects us to our calm centre. I also share a simple but powerful technique that is very effective for managing anxious thoughts and feelings in everyday life as well as a free meditation you can practice with.
Mindfulness can help us to unhook from our anxious thoughts and calm our nervous system. It teaches us to rest our attention in the present moment and let go of being pulled around by unhelpful thoughts and emotions.
The reason we experience anxiety has to do with the way our mind evolved. For most of the last 200,000 years of human evolution humans lived as hunter gatherers in tribes. It’s only been a very short time humans have lived the way we do today, so our minds still operate in much the same way they did in those caveman days.
In the caveman days life was very dangerous and difficult so to stay alive our ancestors had to constantly be on the lookout for danger, threats and problems to be solved. The humans who were constantly anxious, alert and on the lookout for danger were the ones who survived and passed on their genes.
Now even though we live in a much more safe and comfortable world today, this mind we’ve inherited is still on the lookout for threats and problems all the time. Even if everything is ok you might notice that it tends to constantly ruminate, worry and fixate on problems. But now instead of worrying about sabre tooth tigers or attacks from rival clans we worry about our relationships, our health or our careers.
How Our Thoughts Provoke Anxiety
When the mind casts itself into the future and plays out ‘what if’ scenarios or imagines what might go wrong, when it ‘catastrophises’ (that is, it predicts bad outcomes that haven’t and will likely never eventuate) our bodies respond to those thoughts as if the threat were real. The result, we feel stressed, worried and anxious.
Now this can happen when you’re sitting in a perfectly peaceful room or garden where you’re safe and everything is actually ok in that particular moment.
But if we can begin to recognise these thoughts when they arise, identifying them as just that – thoughts – and not something we have to take seriously or buy into, they lose their power to pull us into emotional reactivity. In this way we unhook ourselves from our anxious thoughts and can be more calm and at ease in ourselves.
Constant stress, worry and fixation on problems may have been a great survival strategy in the past, but these days it’s unhelpful, painful and debilitating to be constantly stuck in that mode of being. But it’s important to note and really take this in…
Anxiety is Not Your Enemy
Everything your mind is doing is in an attempt to protect and serve you. It’s trying to help you stay alive. So all that worry that can feel really unpleasant comes from a place of care. Your mind is your friend and anxiety is not an enemy.
Anxiety is a normal healthy emotion. But when our mind gets stuck in it, it’s just a little bit like the byproduct of an of out of date software program running in the mind. When we see this clearly we can learn to befriend our experience and work with it in new ways.
We don’t need to try to get rid of anxiety. There’s no way that we can get rid of anxiety totally because it’s a natural part of being human. But what we can do is shift our relationship to it and so that it no longer becomes debilitating for us.
Mindfulness is a tried and tested and evidence based path to unwind and transform these old software patterns of the mind that cause us stress, anxiety and suffering. With regular practice you become a more calm, kind, wise and resilient person. An island of sanity and peace in an increasingly frantic world.