Anxiety affects all of us in varying degrees. You don’t have to be diagnosed with a clinical disorder to feel its insidious or intrusive effects. Fortunately, there are many ways to ease anxiety healthfully.
Mindfulness is one effective practice that helps to relax the mind and body. According to Jeffrey Brantley, M.D., and Wendy Millstine, NC, in their book Daily Meditations for Calming Your Anxious Mind, mindfulness is:
… an awareness that is sensitive, open, kind, gentle and curious. Mindfulness is a basic human capacity. It arises from paying attention on purpose in a way that is nonjudging, friendly and does not try to add or subtract anything from whatever is happening.
In their book, Brantley and Millstine offer a variety of valuable meditations or practices that are based on mindfulness. They suggest practicing these meditations daily no matter how you’re feeling. You can start by devoting several minutes a day and working your way to 20 or 30 minutes.
The most important aspect of meditation is your attitude. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist and meditation teacher who developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, there are seven attitudes that form the foundation of mindfulness practice: “nonjudging, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, nonstriving, acceptance and letting go.”
Brantley and Millstine define these attitudes in their book:
- Nonjudging or nonstriving: practicing without expecting change to occur.
- Patience: being patient toward yourself and your body when it becomes restless during meditation.
- Beginner’s mind: paying attention to each moment and to your breathing as though you’re doing it for the first time, so that you’re curious and welcoming.
- Trust: trusting yourself to be present and aware in the moment.
- Acceptance: being willing to view things in the moment, as they are, even if you don’t like them.
- Letting go: not fighting or going after something that comes into your awareness.
Also, avoid pitting yourself against anxiety as if it were an enemy to vanquish. As anxiety expert Chad LeJeune once told me, some people will use relaxation techniques as weapons in their anti-anxiety arsenal. They’ll try “to furiously breathe away their anxiety,” or get stressed out when an activity isn’t eliminating their angst. But it’s best to accept your anxiety, and your thoughts and feelings.
For instance, according to Brantley and Millstine:
As you practice, you may notice your mind is busy with thoughts. That is okay. Thoughts are not the enemy. You do not have to fight them and you do not have to follow them, either. Treat thoughts like anything else that draws your attention. Notice them, allow them to be as they are, and gently let your attention open back to, and settle on, the breath sensations.
They also remind readers that you are not your anxiety. People who struggle with anxiety tend to think it’s permanent and part of their identity. When you’re in the midst of angst, it’s understandable to think this way. But these reactions, in reality, are temporary. I love the way Brantley and Millstine explain it:
The feelings of anxiety and worry themselves are actually part of the present-moment experience and can be seen as such instead of as an absolute truth or an immutable personal defect. The shifting of attention away from the present to someplace else is usually just an unconscious habit of mind — a pattern of paying attention — that you have learned as a means of meeting life’s challenges…
Here are three of my favorite practices from the book that I think will resonate with you, too.
1. “Just the wind blowing: allowing life to move through this moment.”
You can practice this meditation when you’re relaxed or not so much. The authors suggest taking a comfortable position and focusing the attention to your breath. Breathe in deeply and imagine that you’re surrounded by beautiful nature. Picture the wind blowing around you.
As the authors write, “Let all of your conscious experience — sounds, sensations, thoughts, emotions, everything — become the wind. Feel all of it moving and changing, arriving, moving around and over you, and then going. Notice how the wind takes on different qualities — soft, strong, harsh, gusty, gentle. Relax as the wind blows around you. Let it come and go in all its forms. You remain here, in calmness, abiding.”
2. “The Tao of anxiety.”
In the moment anxiety feels anything but good or helpful. It can feel anywhere from frustrating to intrusive to downright terrifying. But anxiety can be a teaching tool, too.
According to Brantley and Millstine, “Worrisome thoughts are a sign or signal; they contain a message for you to decipher that will help guide you to a place of well-being.” They suggest asking yourself the following three questions to help you better understand yourself and figure out the changes you can make toward your well-being.
- “What can anxiety teach me?” It might teach you to be more compassionate toward individuals who also struggle with anxiety, Brantley and Millstine write. Or it might expose you to experiences that have tested your strength. “Take this still moment to acknowledge the countless times that you have faced your worst fears, fallen down, stood up again, dusted yourself off, and found the strength to move forward.”
- “What are my mind and body trying to reveal to me?”
- “What does [my] inner wisdom tell [me] must occur in order for [me] to recover?” The authors note that this is the most important question. You might be ready to examine the cause of your anxiety, resolve a conflict with a loved one or find new meaning in your life. “Let your anxiety symptoms help you see what needs to be healed in your life.”
3. “Sea of tranquility.”
Ever notice that when you get comfortable with life, it suddenly does a 180? Life is unpredictable, and when you’re struggling with anxiety, this can be a tough thing to take. As Brantley and Millstine note, “There may be no realistic, foolproof way to be fully prepared for change, but there is a way to keep your perspective.”
This meditation, they say, helps to guide you through change. They suggest recording it so you can listen to it in future practices. Just remember to speak slowly, calmly and clearly.
1. Close your eyes and visualize yourself at the beach, sitting on the warm sands, with a refreshing sea breeze sprinkling your whole body. You are safe and secure. You are watching the waves drift in and out, over and over again. Each wave is like your breath, rising up inside from deep within and then releasing and returning out to sea.
2. What do you notice about the surface of the ocean? It’s much like your life — some parts are rough, choppy, with impending waves of uncertainty pounding away. Breathe in these moments that are challenging and upsetting. Remember that you have the stability and strength to weather the storm. Breathe out your fears and doubts about the outcome. What will be will be. Only the waves can carry all your secrets and anxieties out to sea.
3. What’s happening below the surface of the ocean? It is a calm, serene, quiet and contemplative underwater experience. Schools of fish are swimming to and fro. Sea plants are sashaying to a mysterious, musical current. Starfish cling to rocks in colorful display. Luminescent shards of sunlight splice through the water, transmitting warmth and radiance downward.
4. Depending on what life tosses your way, you may be bodysurfing the big one or floating along a sea of serenity. Be mindful of the journey, the highs and lows, the good times and the bad, the joy and the pain. Move gently with each wave.
When you’re ready, bring your attention back to where you are. As you go about your day, “carry the calm tide of the ocean within you,” according to the authors.