Updated: Sep 11
What is it about the way we’re wired that can keep us fixated on the past or ruminating about what could go wrong in the future?
The ability to analyze the past to see what was pleasant (or painful) is part of our human survival kit. Learning to minimize risk, and maximize the future are useful skills that help keep us alive.
Unfortunately, our ability to evaluate future risk isn’t always accurate. This causes some people to become trapped in cycles of anxiety that can lead to depression and even chronic pain.
But mindfulness can be particularly effective in helping clients escape these patterns.
How Mindfulness Retrains the Brain to Reduce Anxiety
One of the first things we typically notice when we begin a mindfulness practice is how often we have scary thoughts about the future. All the what-if's come into play.
And even the most subtle thought can cause anxiety. Just take a moment to think about something that makes you anxious. Is it a thought of the past, the present, or the future?
One of the ways mindfulness practice can help us with anxiety is simply by training the brain and mind to bring attention to the present moment. Since for many of us, the present moment is usually pretty safe, doing this can really help reduce anxiety.
How Mindfulness Increases The Capacity to Bear Anxiety
The other way mindfulness helps is a bit more counter-intuitive. We’re hard-wired to find anxiety unpleasant. After all, if we weren’t, we might gravitate toward dangerous situations, and eventually this would keep us from passing our DNA on to the next generation.
So naturally, we want to get rid of unpleasant anxious feelings. But our attempts to avoid anxiety is actually the fuel that will keep us stuck in a cycle of anxiousness.
In a mindfulness-oriented approach, instead of trying to get rid of anxiety, we increase our capacity to bear it.
And this is not a new idea – the Buddha talked about anxiety 2500 years ago:
“Why do I dwell always expecting fear and dread? What if I subdue that fear and dread, keeping the same posture that I’m in when it comes upon me? While I walked, the fear and dread came upon me. I neither stood, nor sat, nor lay down until I had subdued that fear and dread.”
What he’s saying, is when the fear or dread arises, instead of doing something to try to feel better and make it go away -- he’s going to stay with it. He’s going to ride it out, until it goes away by itself.
A simple practice you can use to befriend fear and anxiety
Start by bringing attention to some sensation in the body – perhaps the breath or another object of attention. Continue gently returning the attention to this object for a few minutes.
Next, see if you can locate the anxiety within the body. Just notice how it feels. Is it in your stomach? Your chest? Is it racing thoughts? Is it trembling hands?
Once you can feel the anxiety rising, just breathe, and feel it. Notice how it feels throughout the body. Greet it like an old friend, “Oh I know you, you’re my old pal fear. You’ve visited me on so many occasions. Welcome back.”
Keep breathing, and keep practicing just welcoming and feeling the fear. If you give the exercise enough time, and stay focused on your breathe and continue to welcome the anxious feelings, eventually you will have difficulty maintaining the anxiety.
This practice helps bring awareness that simply being with fear allows it to come and go like all other mental content. And this can really help crystallize that it’s often the attempt to make anxiety go away, not the anxiety itself that traps us in anxiety disorders.
If you would like help with managing your anxiety, check out our therapy services.