Mindfulness for Anxiety: How Living in the Now Is the Best Medicine for Anxious Minds

8 Minute Read

You may not be surprised by the following statistic: Approximately 40 million adults in the US suffer from an anxiety disorder, making it the country’s most common mental illness. (And that figure predates the pandemic.)

Here’s a less predictable number: Even though anxiety disorders are highly treatable, only about a third of sufferers get the right kind of help.

Some simple mindfulness exercises can be extremely effective in quelling anxiety when it rises.

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If you’re one of those aforementioned 40 million, getting help doesn’t have to be difficult. In addition to seeking therapy, some simple mindfulness exercises can be extremely effective in quelling anxiety when it rises.

Think of the following as your very own set of tools. When you’re feeling anxious, you can use mindfulness as part of a coping strategy to combat this debilitating disorder. Here’s how it works.

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What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness has its roots in meditation and Buddhist philosophy and often involves trying to enter into a different level of consciousness. The aim of this practice is to get into a deep state of relaxation or restful alertness.

The benefit of reaching such a state is that it helps you become more aware of the present moment. In a sense, you might want to think of it as one step on the road to meditation. It can help to reduce worry, but it still allows you to be aware without being fearful.

(It’s important to note here that spirituality is not a requirement of mindfulness. It’s not part of any organized religion, nor is it a religion in itself.)

Many people across all different backgrounds incorporate mindfulness into their daily routines. In the UK, it’s even prescribed by public health professionals in the UK as an alternative to anti-anxiety medication.

The aim of mindfulness is to get into a deep state of relaxation or restful alertness.

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Mindfulness for Anxiety

Anxiety can be triggered by all sorts of circumstances: finances, relationships, family, career changes, moving, or even a global pandemic that alters the day-to-day normalities of life as we know it.

Regardless of origin, mindfulness is a great tool for managing and relieving whatever anxiety you may experience.

As mentioned above, one of the goals of mindfulness is to bring yourself fully into the present. In practicing mindfulness for anxiety, you’ll be aware of where you are and what you’re doing, but not be overly reactive to or overwhelmed by the things going on around you.

By drawing yourself into the present moment you will end up expending less energy thinking about things that are beyond your control.

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Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a specific kind of mindfulness practice that’s often used for anxiety relief. Its goal is simply to address the stresses of everyday life.

MBSR has been shown to improve both mental and physical health. The eight-week program teaches mindfulness practices that help you bring what the program refers to as “kind awareness and acknowledgment” to any anxious feelings or thoughts and simply allow them to be.

The reasoning behind the technique is that by allowing those unpleasant feelings or thoughts to exist, rather than fighting them, you stop feeding them energy, which in turn allows them to move through you and drift away.

Am I Doing it Right?

When you first start practicing mindfulness, it’s natural to wonder if you’re doing it correctly. The short and beautiful answer to that question is: As long as you’re trying, you’re doing it right.

As with meditation, it’s normal for your mind to sometimes wander during a mindfulness session (often to the very things that are causing you anxiety in the first place), and for you to find yourself pulled out of the moment—even longtime practitioners have days like this. When that happens, just refocus your attention and continue.

To begin, simply lie or sit still, get comfortable, and try some of the following exercises.

  • Focus on sensory experiences. How do the clothes you’re wearing feel against your body? What sounds can you hear immediately around you, and in the distance? Can you smell anything? What do you taste?
  • Experiment with practicing mindfulness both with your eyes open and closed, and see how each state changes your perception.
  • If you’re at home, try lighting a candle or playing some soothing music to help get you in a self-care frame of mind.

By drawing yourself into the present moment, you’ll expend less energy thinking about things beyond your control.

Practicing mindfulness for anxiety won’t eliminate anxiety from your life. But it will help you to separate what’s real from what’s merely a product of unnecessary worry.

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Practicing mindfulness for anxiety won’t eliminate anxiety from your life. But it will help you to separate what’s real from what’s merely a product of unnecessary worry.

Mindfulness Classes

One of the best things about mindfulness is that you can use it to help you cope almost anywhere.

You could take a coffee break at work and embark on a mindfulness exercise to help you relax. You could use it to start your day before you get out of bed, or end it as you drift to sleep. You could even practice mindfulness on your morning commute (best to keep your eyes open for that one).

A great way to learn more about mindfulness for anxiety is to join a class or series of group sessions, which can have several advantages.

One of the best things about mindfulness is that you can use it to help you cope almost anywhere.

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You may find that others in a group come from different backgrounds and are of varying ages, but you’ll all share similar goals in wanting to learn more about mindfulness.

It can be empowering to see how others are affected by anxiety, because it enables you to see that you’re not alone in your experience.

Group sessions can also help you get over the “Am I doing this right?” question. And you can bounce any concerns you may have off the person leading the class, or even other participants.

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Most of us lead busy lives, and it’s easy to let all of your time be absorbed by the rhythym of the day. But taking just a few minutes to breath, focus on your body, and remind yourself of what’s right in front of you can bring more peace and joy into your life.

Two Simple Mindfulness Exercises to Get Your Started

If you want to start experimenting with mindfulness right away, you can. Right now. In this moment. Here are two of our favorite exercises.

1. Three-Minute Breathing Space

This is one of the most popular exercises used in MBSR classes. As the name implies, all it requires is three minutes of your time, focused mostly on the breath. It works like this:

Minute 1: Close your eyes (not required, but helpful), and for a full minute try to focus only on the thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing, without judgment or attempting to change anything. What are you anxious about? How does your body feel? Just sit and listen.

Minute 2: Narrow your attention to just your breath, focusing first on one part of your body where you feel its movement the most—that may be your chest, your belly, between your lips, or the tip of your nostrils. Stay with your breath as it rises and falls.

Minute 3: Expand your focus again to your entire body and try to notice any sensations you may have in the moment, simply witnessing them.

This exercise may be straightforward, but it’s powerful. It can help you break the loop of negative thought patterns, become more aware of your thoughts and feelings, and focus your attention more openly, all of which you can carry into the rest of your life.

2. Body Scan 

This exercise builds off of the third step of the Three-Minute Breathing Space, focusing your attention solely on the sensations throughout your body.

Rather than observing your body as a whole, though, the Body Scan works as the name implies, by scanning different areas of your body, one by one. 

Start by focusing on the very top of your head. What do you feel there? Is it hot? Cold? Tense? If you don’t notice any particular feeling, just say to yourself, “no sensation.”

Repeat this process as you work down your body, to your face and temples, your neck and shoulders, your torso, arms, legs, and all the way to the tips of your toes.

Take as much or as little time as you’d like.

If you’d like some more exercises, we’ve written a lot about relaxation techniques, decluttering the mind, coping with coronavirus stress, and using mindfulness to return to a place of joy, so check those out.

Being Kind to Yourself

If you take only one lesson away from this article, let it be this: Be kind to yourself. Be as generous with yourself as you are with others, especially when it comes to your time.

Most of us lead busy lives, and it’s easy to let all of your time be absorbed by the rhythym of the day. But taking just a few minutes to breath, focus on your body, and remind yourself of what’s right in front of you can bring more peace and joy into your life.

Your Turn: Have you ever tried mindfulness for anxiety? What did you find most useful? We want to hear about your experience. Share your thoughts in the comments below!

A version of this post originally appeared on our sister site, NYC Therapy + Wellness.

Lucas Saiter

Lucas Saiter is a Licensed Psychotherapist at Clarity Therapy. He specializes in LGBTQIA+ Affirmative Therapy and helps individuals who are struggling with intimacy and relationship issues, coming out, self-esteem and identity concerns.

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