Experiencing anxiety is unpleasant. Unless perhaps you are on line for an amusement park ride, most of us find anxiety challenging to face. Recently I had the opportunity to face some anxiety head on, right before and during some planned surgery that a close family member underwent. Here is a personal experience of how mindfulness helped me through that anxious moment, and what I learned.
What Mindfulness is NOT, and what it CAN offer:
While the explosion of research and interest in mindfulness has brought so much benefit to so many, I see as a psychologist that there is now a risk of it being perhaps glamorized and misunderstood as the “solution” or “cure” to every problem. One of the most common misperceptions that I hear from people who are new to mindfulness is when they say “it didn’t work.”
Mindfulness doesn’t take away all of our stress, pain, anxiety and worry and bring us to a place of bliss, but instead it offers us a different way of relating to our experience, by being able to observe what we are feeling and thinking with greater awareness, non-judgment, acceptance and kindness. While the goal of mindfulness is not to take away our discomfort, it can offer us a way to move through uncomfortable experiences with more compassion and ease.
Sitting with My Anxiety
In this situation, a member of my family had to have general anesthesia for a day surgery. While thankfully this was not a life threatening condition, there were risks nonetheless and some uncertainty that raised fear and anxiety for me as the one who was waiting at the hospital during the surgery.
Throughout that seemingly long hour and a half that I was waiting for the doctor to give me feedback from the surgery I had ample opportunity to be with my fear. Some of this I did formally as I meditated (closed my eyes and followed my breath in and out as I observed my thoughts, feelings, and body sensations), and some informally as I just waited and noticed my own reactions. I tried to simply observe whatever was arising without judging what was there (e.g., without saying “this is stupid — why am I feeling this way), and tried to redirect my attention back, again and again, to the present moment.
Here is what I noticed and learned:
- By observing what I was experiencing moment-to-moment, it created a little bit of distance or space between me and my thoughts, and me and my bodily reactions. It didn’t stop the thoughts from occurring, or the heart from pounding fast, but I was more aware of what was happening so I didn’t get quite as pulled in and swept away.
- My breath was a helpful anchor for me. It offered me a place to return, over and over, even as my heart rate increased, my mind started to worry, and I felt a multitude of emotions. It was my steady companion during what felt like an endless stretch of time, and it helped to offer me some sense of stability.
- When I made the choice to open to what I was feeling, rather than push it away, it took some additional struggle out of the experience. I was being carried in a stream of icy cold water, but at least I wasn’t also fighting to swim upstream. When I was able to observe my bodily reactions (heart beating fast, increased sweating, face flushed, etc.) with some curiosity and without the need to control it, this made it easier to be with whatever was happening, rather than exerting additional energy trying to fight it, judge it, or stop it.
- Following my feelings and sensations was a bit like riding the waves in the ocean. There were times where my feelings were more intense, or where my heart beat was particularly fast and seemingly loud, but there were other times when I felt moments of calm. There was an ebb and flow that made my experience more bearable.
- I was very aware of the tendency of my mind to want to pull me away from the present and into the past (pulling up old feelings related to earlier memories and associations of hospitals and loss) and into the future (creating all kinds of stories about what could be and what if’s). When this happened it was very helpful for me to remind myself that neither of these streams of thought were the reality of what was happening right now. That helped to keep me more grounded, and it helped my anxiety from escalating. When my mind wanted to imagine all kinds of “what if “scenarios, I had to bring it back to the now, the way people liken mindfulness to training a puppy. When I started going into the past I was able to recognize it and put that past experience in a completely separate container that was NOT today/the present moment.
- By observing what I was experiencing, rather than being completely pulled away by it, I was able to have a bit of space to bring some compassion to myself. I was able to tell myself “this is hard” and have that be O.K. I was also able to feel greater compassion for the people around me. I saw all of the other people in this waiting room waiting for news about their loved ones, and then I thought of all of the family members on other floors of the hospital, and in hospitals all over the world. By focusing on sending them feelings of care and compassion, it helped bring me out of my own personal experience, and helped to open my heart and feel a greater sense of connection.
Practicing mindfulness did not make my anxiety go away, but it helped me to be with my fears, and with myself, the way that I might sit with a good friend. This feeling of being there for myself, fully present, helped to make the experience more bearable. It was an anchor in the storm.
I hope by sharing my own experience with mindfulness it may help others to find an anchor the next time they experience anxiety.