Anxiety is the fear of the unknown — the unpredictable future. It’s the fear that bad things will happen to me, affecting my health, my family, my finances, and so on. Most of our fears are irrational and baseless and do not ever come to fruition. Often times, we admit “I know my fear is irrational but I don’t seem to be able to brush it off.” It starts by a physical sensation like a knot in the stomach, heart palpation, or sweaty hands. You might even experience panic attacks, which feel like you are going to die. The mind finds one worrying thought or another to associate with the physical sensation. The mind and the body enter a feedback loop where they work together to maintain this hyper-alert state. Sounds familiar?
The mind is very convincing and, like an experienced sales person, will not give up until you buy into the fear. If the mind could speak as a separate entity, it would say: “This situation is a real threat; you really need to worry about this one.” When that situation passes or nothing comes of it, the mind jumps to the next situation and repeats the same sales pitch. It really does not matter what the situation is or if there even is a situation, the mind will find it or create it. Can you relate? Of course! We all can, because we all have a mind and that is how the mind operates.
So, what is the way out? Many techniques have been developed to help us manage anxiety, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which teaches us how to challenge and dispute our irrational thoughts. Such tools can be very helpful for working through a specific thought stream. However, they do not work as well for generalized anxiety because, with generalized anxiety, the mind jumps from one worry to another. Also, it becomes tiring since as soon as you work through one fear, another fear takes it’s place. What is required is a qualitative change to how the mind operates rather than an attempt to deal with each thought as it arises.
How do you qualitatively change the mind? How do you build a mind that does not allow thoughts to stick and replay over and over? It takes practice but this is achievable. Follow these two steps daily and you will be amazed by the results. The key is to practice daily and not break the chain. Retraining the mind will require effort, commitment, and believing in the possibility.
Start with a breathing exercise that grounds you and clears your energy. Breathing exercises on their own, lower anxiety, as they reduce the tension and physical symptoms associated with anxiety. Here is a link to a YouTube video by Lama Surya Das that teaches how to practice breathing:
Meditate. Once the body is grounded, it is much easier to meditate. There are many ideas and theories about meditation. Use meditation to gain clarity. Remove all distractions, sit comfortably, close your eyes if it helps, and focus on your breathing. Slow down your breathing as much as possible to help slow down your body and mind. Your mind will come up with thoughts and that is perfectly ok because that is what the mind does — produces thoughts. Be mindful of not entertaining these thoughts; let them come and go as if they are floating clouds in the sky. You can even say “It is just a thought.” That is really what it is: just a thought. You might find yourself mingling with a thought. Catch yourself and bring your attention back to your breathing and your body. Some people like to count their breath as a way to maintain focus on breathing. Utilize what works for you.
Meditation is a powerful practice to detach from thoughts, thinking, and worrying. As you practice breathing and meditation regularly, you will realize that it becomes easier and easier to remain aware of thoughts and not have to indulge in each and every one. You will realize that, throughout the day, even when you are not meditating, you will have a different level of clarity and will not be a victim to dysfunctional thinking. You will find a level of freedom that you never thought would be possible. Give it a try and let me know how this works out for you.
Author: Seda Gragossian, PhD
Talk Therapy Psychology Center