One of the benefits of mindfulness is it helps deal with anxiety.
We have said earlier that: Mindfulness = Awareness.
It is a convenient way to understand mindfulness to think of it as awareness.
The question then becomes how does the awareness actually help in dealing with anxiety. This was highlighted by a question that one of student who suffered through anxiety, posed.
I became aware of my anxiety. But now what? I still feel anxious.
In this post I will try to explore the mechanism, how mindfulness or awareness can help you deal with your anxiety.
The claim is:
“Work on strengthening the awareness and work on bringing awareness to teh feeling of anxiety and your anxiety will gradually stop or at least it will stop being a problem for you.”
Following is a possible series of events and a possible mechanism how awareness can help with anxiety.
Building the muscle of awareness
You practice strengthening awareness by doing formal meditation practices and by informally practicing being aware from time to time.
You practicing bringing awareness to the feeling of anxiety as soon as you realize that you start feeling it.
Initially, you may not succeed. You will find that you may become aware of your anxiety just for a moment and next moment the awareness is gone.
Over a period of time, you may start noticing that you are able to bring awareness to the feeling of anxiety for a few moments.
Recognizing the composite nature of anxiety
If you continue to bring awareness to the feeling of anxiety, after a while you may notice that what you call the experience of ‘anxiety’ is not just an unpleasant feeling but there is thinking that also goes on along with the feeling of anxiety.
At times, there is a specific circumstance or a specific person that is the source of your anxiety. In that case, you may notice thoughts like.
- “What if something bad happens.”
- “What if you cross paths with the person that you dislike.”
- “Why is this happening to me?”
At other times your anxiety may not have any evident source and it may just come about like that. In that scenario, you may notice thoughts like.
- “When will this stop?” Or
- “What if this doesn’t stop?”
There is a very clear unpleasant feeling of anxiety but there are thoughts as well.
Continuing to observe anxiety with awareness, you will notice that besides the unpleasant feeling of anxiety and thoughts there are physical sensations that are also present. You may feel specific sensations in your stomach or your chest or in your head. You may feel it somewhere else.
You may feel specific sensations in your stomach or your chest or in your head. You may feel it somewhere else.
With awareness you may realize that what felt like a monolithic experience of unpleasantness is really a composite.
- There is the distinct unpleasant feeling of anxiety.
- There are thoughts.
- There are physical sensations.
At this stage, the unpleasantness is till there. It still makes you suffer. It is still a problem. But you are investigating the phenomenon of anxiety and this investigation will soon start to bear fruits.
It is still a problem. But you are investigating the phenomenon of anxiety and this investigation will soon start to bear fruits.
Breaking the loop of feeling and thinking
Continuing further along and building the strength of awareness you can notice following.
The feeling of anxiety is actually fueling the thoughts that are present along with the anxiety. You feel anxious about an upcoming event and that is likely to give rise to a thought “What if something goes wrong at that even.”
But you also notice that when you get those thoughts, they, in turn, intensify the feeling of anxiety. More thoughts you get like “Oh my god, I am in trouble.” or “How will I manage.” Your anxiety gets worse.
You notice you are locked up in a vicious loop. Feeling fueling thoughts and thoughts feeding the feeling.
Having noticed that you can investigate what are the possibilities of getting yourself knocked out of this loop?
You may realize, perhaps a distraction can work. You can focus on something else that is going in the moment that is not likely to fuel the feelings or thoughts. Something neutral.
What could that be?
Your breath? Yes, you can focus on the breath when you feel anxious and that could help.
Remember there are physical sensations also present. Most of the time, such sensations are neutral in nature.
That means you can try to divert your attention to the physical sensations. You can try to feel physical sensations that are present.
Is there anything else that is happening in the present moment that is not likely to bring you back to this cycle of feeling and thinking?
You see, there is a possibility of some relief thanks to awareness.
With the help of awareness you can make one more very critical observation about the thoughts that are present along with anxiety.
Typically you will think that:
- “I am anxious.”
- “What if I get into trouble.”
- “I don’t want this happen to me.”
By default you automatically fully identify with the feeling of anxiety. It is all about you.
But isn’t that common sense? After all, it is your anxiety that you feel. It is not someone else’s anxiety, correct?
You may come to realize that it is possible to not identify with the feelings of anxiety as well. It doesn’t mean you deny the presence of those feelings.
The unpleasantness is definitely present. But how can you prove that it is YOURS?
What you are sure about is the presence of the feelings. You are not sure about the presence of you.
Of course, you need to develop stronger awareness to experience this. This will not make sense to you if you approach it purely intellectually.
In more concrete terms, how can you try to not identify? You can do by trying to rephrase your thoughts.
Rather than saying
“I am anxious.”
“Anxiety is present.”
Rather than saying.
“This anxiety is killing me.”
“The feeling of anxiety that it might kill is present.”
Rather than saying
“Why is this happening to me?”
“Why is the feeling of anxiety present?”
Do you get the idea? If not, let me know in the comment section.
The feeling of anxiety and the resistance
As you continue to bring awareness to the feeling of anxiety what you will start noticing is that what feels like an unpleasant feeling actually has two parts.
There is an experience of a distinct feeling that we describe as anxiety.
But there is also resistance to that feeling of anxiety. This resistance is captured in your characterization of that experience as unpleasant.
The term ‘unpleasant’ describes the desire for that specific feeling or sensation to go away or stop.
But the moment you realize through awareness that the experience of anxiety is not just a singular experience, but there are disjoint parts to it.
There is an emotional feeling to it. And there is a mental attitude that is completely separate from the experience of the feeling itself.
Anxiety = An emotional feeling + Resistance to this feeling
This insight is opening up a whole new possibility of relating very differently to that experience of the emotional feeling.
On top of the underlying unpleasantness of anxiety, you have resistance, which is also unpleasant.
At this stage with awareness, you can notice that by resisting to the feeling of anxiety which is already present now, you are adding to your suffering.
Given you overall goal is to relieve the pain of anxiety, you can try to work towards reducing your resistance. You can attempt to not resist the feeling of anxiety.
In other words, you can try to open up to anxiety. You can try to make some room for anxiety. You can give yourself the permission to feel the anxiety.
This is usually a gradual process, where you might not succeed right away. Also, this gradual work is best practiced with milder forms of anxiety. It may not work with severe anxiety right off the bat.
It can also be helpful to affirm this intention to open up to anxiety and to allow the feeling of anxiety from time to time even when you are not feeling anxiety.
Although at this stage it is not just awareness anymore. It is a volitional act in relating differently to the feeling that is present.
But without awareness, it is extremely difficult to realize the possibility of at least not resisting the initial feeling of anxiety.
With practice, you will get better at not resisting the feeling of anxiety. And lesser the resistance easier it is to bear the anxiety.
The very first moment you bring awareness to your anxiety it won’t magically melt away.
There is a path where you can work with anxiety using awareness.
Awareness can help you notice the composite nature of anxiety.
It can help you realize the vicious loop of feeling and thinking.
It can help you distract (mindfully) away from the loop of feeling and thinking.
It can help you notice the default identification with the feelings of anxiety.
It can help you dis-identify and reduce the weight of anxiety.
It can help you notice the presence of resistance to anxiety once it has already unfolded.
It can help you work towards reducing and eliminating resistance to the anxiety.