How To Manage Anxiety with Mindfulness

This is a guest post by Paige Burkes of Simple Mindfulness.

The mere thought of a stressful event sends your heart racing.  Your boss wants to “speak with you.”  You had an argument with your partner.  Your kids are running into trouble.  Your financial situation is less than ideal.

The monkey mind in your head starts screeching about the horrors of the situation.  The same anxious thoughts cycle over and over in your head creating ever-higher levels of anxiety.  Your heart is pounding.

It’s tough to talk yourself down from these feelings.  Mainly because talking comes from the rational part of your brain, the cerebral cortex.  Feelings come from the deeper, more primal part of the brain, the hypothalamus, as well as the “brain” in your gut, neither of which even understand language.

Feelings can only be met with feelings.  How do you create calming feelings when you’re in the midst of an anxiety attack?  With practice.

Without some sort of calming daily practice, there’s no way that primal part of your brain can find something different to do in the midst of a stressful situation.  That “something different” must be programmed via daily habits.

It’s like driving a car.  How often have you arrived at your destination and wondered how you got there?  Your subconscious took over while you were worried about other things.  How did your subconscious take over such a complicated task as driving a car?  Through daily practice.  Every aspect of driving was ingrained in your subconscious over a long period of time.  Your subconscious took over.

Imagine feeling an anxiety attack coming on and suddenly your body starts a practice that recognizes the attack and starts to diffuse it.  As soon as your heart starts racing, you pause and begin to breathe deeply.  You close your eyes and visualize a calming environment.  You sit with all this until you feel your heart begin to calm down.  You begin to notice things around you that you’re grateful for.

How could you possibly train your body to accomplish such a feat?  Begin where you are.  That’s really all you can do.

My Mindfulness Journey

Years ago, I remember asking my therapist how I could possibly start a meditation practice with my mind constantly racing from one thought to another.  Given my type-A personality, I thought it was impossible, although I desperately wanted to find a way.

She got me started with simply sitting and breathing. Doing that for even ten seconds was quite a challenge for me in the beginning. Sitting and counting ten breaths. But that’s where I started.

I practiced this whenever I thought about it, which wasn’t daily but a few times a week.  The more I practiced, the easier it got.

During the day I would remind myself that “now” would be a good time to take a few deep breaths.  Those times were while I was driving longer distances, sitting at a stop light, waiting in line, sitting on hold on the phone or any other time where life created a little pause for me.  When I chose to begin a yoga practice, I ended every practice with a sitting meditation where I focused on my breath.

Now, when I notice my monkey mind taking over, getting me all stressed about something and conjuring up impossible worst case scenarios, I notice my tense gut and short breath and pause.  In that pause, I bring myself back from the scary future that my monkey mind is so hyped up about to the present moment.

I remind myself that everything is perfect in this moment.  I remind myself that the future that my monkey mind is scaring me with is highly unlikely to materialize.  Even if it did, I know how to handle it.

My rational mind starts to come up with more realistic outcomes and what I can do to handle each of them.

Then I come back to the moment and begin noticing all the amazing things in my life that I’m grateful for:

  • That I’m alive and breathing
  • The beautiful sky
  • My family and friends
  • My car, computer, phone or any other object that makes my life a little easier
  • Delicious, nutritious food
  • Hot, running water (most of the world doesn’t enjoy this double luxury)
  • An endless supply of books and information to learn from
  • My home

The list is literally endless.  All it takes is an opening of the mind to see the infinite bounty.

To top off my practice, I smile the biggest smile I possibly can.  I hold this smile for at least thirty seconds.  Usually, at the end of the thirty seconds, I don’t feel like stopping.

In less than five minutes I’ve transformed my day from stressful, anxious and chaotic to calm and blissful.

The Power of Baby Steps

I’ll admit that this doesn’t happen overnight, if you’re regularly caught up in anxious states and have never practiced mindfulness or meditation.

But you can start the journey today, right now.

Close your eyes, calm yourself as best you can, and take ten deep breaths, thinking only of the number of each breath.  If you get distracted (and you most definitely will), start back at one and repeat as often as you have to in order to get to ten.

Be compassionate with yourself.  Take baby steps.

Some days will be better than others.  That’s life.  Do your best knowing that that’s the best you can do.  And your best each day will vary.  You’re human.

When I started my practice, it took me many, many attempts to count to ten breaths.  I didn’t set any goals or timelines as that would be completely counterproductive.  Each day I would simply practice.

Over time, taking baby steps, I would make my breathing exercise (also a form of mindful meditation) a little longer.  Over time I added the steps that make up my current practice of managing stressful states.  Every day was a baby step.

Since the results of baby steps are so difficult to notice because the change is so gradual, you may feel like you’re getting nowhere.  But that’s the magic of a daily practice.  It transforms you without you knowing it.

It wasn’t until I started reflecting on my journey and practices and writing about them that I realized what an impact they’ve had on all aspects of my life.

Each step opened a new door and concept to explore.  Deep breathing led to yoga which led to meditation which led to mindfulness.  And all of this has transformed me into a happier person with significantly better relationships who lives her values in an intentional way.  Basically the opposite of where I started.

What will your first baby step be?

Paige Burkes 2015sPaige Burkes inspires her community at Simple Mindfulness to see the world in a new light through mindfulness.   Download her FREE Mindful Living Guide to discover the simple steps you can take to create more joy, peace and happiness in your life.  Check out her Mindful Body Program which uses mindfulness to transform your health and generate more happiness.

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  1. Sandra Pawula Reply

    Love this idea of baby steps when you start with mindfulness, Paige! Otherwise, it’s too easy to give up, thinking you’ll never get it.

    • Baby steps have created the most powerful and long-lasting changes in my life. So many people think they’re “doing it wrong” in the early stages of a mindfulness or meditation practice when they don’t see immediate results. The results are subtle and grow over time with a regular practice. The practice, the journey, is what it’s all about. There is no goal or finish line or perfection. And that’s what makes it so fun and interesting!

  2. Baby steps does it for me too Paige. And you’re so right, it’s all about just beginning and with baby steps it doesn’t seem such a monumental mountain to climb. 🙂

  3. Great reminder that it’s okay to start small and focus on one baby step at a time, keeps one moving forward fearlessly- well almost, thanks Paige

    • The smaller the step, the less fear there is in taking it, which makes it a bit easier to take. I can attest to the benefits of doing something each day to get yourself a little bit out of your comfort zone. A little scary but so worth it!

  4. I begin the article and I can certainly relate.
    I relate to the monkey thinking, the difficulty stopping the negativity.
    I can definitely relate to feeling blessed and grateful for people and things of beauty and comfort.
    Then…the anxiety starts.
    Being grateful… recognizing all I have…does nothing to relieve my burdens. The meer effort at trying to concentrate on those things, only highlights my unhappiness.
    Is that all there is? No future…just be thankful because it could be worse. So many people have it so much worse. Now comes shame, guilt, self-disgust.
    Gratitude and feeling blessed does not equate happiness.

    • You are missing the point of mindfulness. It’s not about forcing yourself to think certain things and denying your feelings and thoughts. It’s about becoming aware of the thoughts that cause you guilt, shame, unhappiness, and self-disgust. These thoughts are the product of your subconscious – made up of wounds, hurt, and trauma – and are most probably not true and are certainly not supporting and helping you. You become aware of the thoughts and work with them to relieve your feelings and to support yourself. You consciously choose what you want to believe and say to help yourself. Here’s a blog about ways to work with your thoughts:

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