An Ancient Method to Help With Anxiety

Using Mindfulness to Change Your Relationship with Worry

Hawaiian woman doing yoga pose inside in morning

The most common mental health problems in the United States are anxiety disorders, experienced by 18% of the adult population. Many who do not meet the criteria for anxiety disorders still struggle with anxiety on a regular basis, and do whatever they can to stop it. Instead of fighting it, the ancient practice of mindfulness meditation and mindfulness based approaches help people change their relationships with anxiety, and experience great relief as a result.

Before cursing anxiety, know this:

From an evolutionary perspective, we all actually have anxiety to thank for our existence as a species. If it were not the human body's ability to rapidly mobilize in the face of threat, using its sympathetic nervous system and turning on the fight-or-flight response, we wouldn't have survived the jaws of hungry tigers in pre-historic times.

Anxiety Today

Unfortunately, for people struggling with anxiety today, that fight-or-flight response still turns on in benign situations, and they experience the physical response that would mobilize them to run fast, yet they have nowhere to go. Anyone who has experienced anxiety can relate to some of the common physical manifestations of anxiety: sweaty palms, racing heart, difficulty breathing, dry mouth, decreased appetite...the list goes on. It is common for people to present to emergency rooms complaining of heart attacks when in reality they are experiencing panic attacks. What can be so difficult about anxiety is that the more one tries to fix it, the worse it can get.

Relating Differently to Anxiety Through Mindfulness

So many people try to fight with their anxiety as a way of resolving it. All too often, this approach to managing anxiety becomes self-defeating. As the wise psychologist,​ Carl Jung, once said, "what you resist persists." If you struggle with anxiety, become upset every time it rears its ugly head, and have expectations of being an anxiety free individual, you will only invite more anxiety into your life. The first step to having a better relationship with anxiety is to just accept that it will exist in your life.

Mindfulness is essentially a non-judgmental, open and accepting moment-to-moment awareness of experience. While it has its roots in Zen Buddhism​, it has been the basis of an effective treatment for anxiety known as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction​, created by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Wherever You Go, There You Are. When you can observe your thoughts and emotions from a detached position, you are less likely to react to them and get caught up in them. You will be less likely to get stuck in that endless spiral of anxious worry, and will be more likely to see your concerns as momentary doubts and transient thoughts. Mindfulness helps us remember that we are not our thoughts or emotions; we just happen to experience them.

H​ow to Be Mindful

Take a deep breath, sit back, observe what's happening, and check out your experience. Notice what's going on. Put your smartphone down and just breathe. Try it for a minute or so at a time throughout your day. Be curious about your experience, and be present. When you start cultivating a new relationship with anxiety by just accepting it for what it is, and stop trying to fight it, it might not feel like as huge of a problem.

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Article Sources
  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America
  • Miller, J., Fletcher, K. and Kabat-Zinn, J. (1995) Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders. General Hospital Psychiatry, 17:192-200.