Mindfulness and Anxiety
In the current world of COVID-19, many of us are experiencing feelings of anxiety, perhaps for the first time. One way of thinking about anxiety is to imagine that it sits in the gap between what we see as our threshold for coping and the perceived threat, which we see as presenting a danger at a level higher than one we are equipped to deal with.
It is perfectly normal to be feeling anxious in these uncertain times. Anxiety grows out of uncertainty. In our daily lives, before COVID-19, the future was always uncertain and individuals always managed this uncertainty in different ways and with different perspectives. Perhaps now though, there is more anxiety in the general population as all of us are facing a future with an acknowledged threat which is difficult to mitigate and which is tangibly affecting every area of our lives.
Taking a Mindful approach to anxiety means acknowledging and noticing that it is there and understanding that it is a normal and to be accepted. Be wary of ascribing the personality trait of ‘anxious’ to yourself, as if it is part of who you are. You may be experiencing anxious thoughts but it is not helpful to identify yourself with your emotions, as this can lead to developing a negative image of yourself. It may be helpful for you, however, to mindfully consider what thoughts, other feelings and sensations you experience in a moment where you identify that you are experiencing anxiety.
The Benefits of Practice
Mindfulness is an approach. There are many different techniques and exercises. As with everything else, some of these will suit you and some will not. It is important for you to find which of these works best for you. Remember, that you are learning a new skill and, as with any new learning you may not find it easy at first. However, it will get easier and begin to feel more natural each time you do it.
Practising Mindfulness is no different to practising anything else. The more you do it, the better you get at it! This is because as with all skills, the neural pathways become increasingly strengthened the more they are activated. We know from neuroscience that repeating an activity over and over again actually changes the shape of the brain. This can be seen in the brain scans of musicians whose brains look different from those who do not play instruments, in the brain scans of taxi drivers who are constantly and repetitively visualising routes, as well as in the brain scans of athletes whose bodies are finely tuned to the demands of their sport and whose brains are similarly trained in the relevant areas.
Imagine the creation of a path within an overgrown forest. The first time it is walked, you have to wade through the undergrowth and when you look behind you, your trail is barely visible. However, the more the same ground is walked through, the more flattened the undergrowth gets and the more established the path becomes. It is exactly the same with practising Mindfulness and the more it is practised the more automatic it becomes, developing into your natural way of ‘being’. It is never too late to start practising Mindfulness. Your brain can grow and adapt throughout your whole life!
Mindfulness and Dealing with Difficult Times
Human beings have been dealing with difficult times throughout history. We are generally resilient and able to adapt to new and challenging situations and we all have strategies for coping. Nevertheless, the global pandemic is likely to be having an impact on all of us. The practice of Mindfulness is another tool to help us manage. Mindfulness gives us permission to acknowledge and, indeed, embrace, the difficulties in the present. A Mindfulness approach allows us to notice our responses – our physiological response, our emotional response – and by its very non-judgemental nature, frees us up to observe ourselves, without attaching these responses to the essence of who we are.
In difficult times, it is important to acknowledge that there is not only one level to the challenge. In 2020, we are faced with COVID-19, a real threat to our health. Coming to terms with its existence and prevalence is a challenge in itself, as is processing the action which has been taken around the world to manage it. At another level, we have the challenge of managing our mind’s response to this situation and the impact it is having on our lives. Our first reaction may well have been to feel that this should not be happening to the world in this day and age, which has almost certainly led many of us into feeling anger, frustration and perhaps even fear. Within a Mindfulness approach, these emotions are to be acknowledged and noticed. There is no wish to dismiss or forget them and yet, Mindfulness can help us reduce their impact by both allowing us to accept these feelings and to let them go, keeping them in their own space, rather than them becoming a part of us. If we can do this, it saves our minds from tensing up around these emotions and thereby, almost inadvertently, hanging on to them.
This can be likened to a physical experience of pain. When you have an opportunity, perhaps the next time you have a headache, or have been sitting too long and can feel pain in your shoulders, try using a mindful approach and think about how you are feeling. Try to notice the sensation of the pain and then notice what is going on round about it. Very often you will discover considerable tension in the muscles around where you can feel the pain. If you are able to relieve the tension, it is likely that the feeling of pain will subside, at least to some extent. In the same way, our minds can tense up around difficult emotions and learning to ease that tension can result in the strength of the emotion diminishing.
I cant let go, no matter how hard I try
Sometimes it can be very hard to notice, but not react to, the thoughts that come into our heads when we are practising Mindfulness. This perhaps particularly happens when an unpleasant thought or memory which is tied up with strong emotions makes its way into our consciousness. If we engage with them, these thoughts or memories have the potential to trigger a re-experience of the event or create an image of what a future event may be like. For many people, COVID-19 will already hold strong memories which may continue to make their way into their consciousness in the future, perhaps out of the blue. Many people are already worrying about what the future is going to look like and what it might hold. If we wish to, how can we manage these thoughts away?
Below is a video with an exercise to help you deal with strong emotions.
Did you know?
A study in Wisconsin, USA, correlated electrical activity in particular areas of the brain with reported feelings of happiness. The study showed that positive feelings went along with extra electrical activity in the prefrontal cortex. Negative feelings were associated with extra electrical activity in the right prefrontal cortex. The ration between the two measurements became known as ‘the mood index’. Further work revealed that the reading moved to the left in people who had undertaken Mindfulness training. In other words, it could be considered that Mindfulness encourages the brain to be positive!