Mindfulness for Anxiety
Six steps to manage anxiety arose out of my experience in recent months of noticing anxiety creeping into or sometimes exploding into my ordainarily peaceful and calm life. I am resilient and I roll with the punches and would not usually describe myself as anxious. My natural way is to be flexible and adaptive. With many years of training in self care and self regulation ( mindfulness) I am usually healthy and happy and at peace with my life. Usually love my work and I have good relationships.
I live a simple life and it pleases me. I practise mindfulness and I find my steady heart and my own peace, from which I manage and live with the various ups and downs that come with any human living. Nature – the simple act of being outside or mucking about in the garden or the increasingly popular practise of Forest Bathing ( find some trees and sit there – it is simple and wonderful as that) is probably my main source of healing and support. I can agree with Mary Oliver that trees save me and daily….
When I Am Among the Trees
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
Coping with Covid
So when the Covid pandemic hit and my usual day to day routines drastically changed I coped. Like many around me I sucked it up, did what was required to support my own wellbeing an contribute to community and the general sense that doing what was asked will help us to come through as a community. I marvelled at the generosity and heroism so evident in my own community and further afield as individuals took time and care to go the extra mile to support the more vulnerable in all sorts of ways. I surprised at myself ( a well established troglodyte ) as I seamlessly move two mindfulness courses and a retreat online in an apparently seamless way.
As a result it was exiting as I learned how to handle zoom, to record video and audio and later to develop a whole new range of digital and e-learning courses. Sometimes it was exciting – new frontiers and all that. Life slowed down. I appreciated the small things. In the early days of the pandemic I thought that by September my life would be back on track in some recognisable way. Now September is looming and uncertainty continues. I notice my buoyancy and optimism of early days dissipates. Sometimes I feel heavy, and lethargic or maybe unexpectedly short or angry towards a loved one. I engage in what a beloved mindfulness teacher Tara Brach (tarabrach.com) call othering – if only the Government would….., if only she didn’t……if only that group would…..then all would be well. I recognise creeping levels or sometimes moments of unexpected anxiety.
Weariness, Anxiety and Depression
Like many others I am feeling weary as summer fades and Autumn arrives. Some days I feel on top of my anxiety, delighting in my new website, excitement and joy at discovering the power of digital. I jump out of bed and I think ‘I am on top of this’. Other days I just want to hide under the covers until the world gets easier and somebody gives me he good news that the pandemic is over.
I know myself well enough and I understand the human psyche well enough to recognise the extra weight, influencing and weighing down my days as anxiety and fear masquerading as the presenting anger, apathy, anxiety and agitation. Thankfully I know the remedy … finding ways to tend the wounds, however trivial these may seem in the bigger scheme of life; and discovering what supports me in moving on, in taking the next steps.
However small and slow the healing and wellbeing begins in these small steps. Even before identifying what small steps will help is the noticing, the recognition of what is happening as anxiety begins to take hold.
It is not just me that is noticing increasing levels of anxiety
I have recently read social media from both Brenee Brown ( breneebrown.com –‘owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do’), and Ruby Wax ( A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled) each exoloring their awareness of creeping levels of unease and anxiety.
Michelle Obama also recently disclosed that she is now dealing with some form of low –grade depression. ‘Not just because of the quarantine, but because of racial strife, and just seeing the administration ,watching the hypocrisy of it, day in day out, is dispiriting’. She says ‘ I’m waking up in the middle of the night, cos I’m worrying about something, or there is a heaviness. I try to make sure I get a workout in, although there have been periods throughout this quarantine ,where I have just felt too low. You know, I’ve gone through those emotional highs and lows that I think everybody feels, where you just don’t feel yourself, and sometimes there has been a week or so where I had to surrender to that, and not be so hard on myself’
In many of her sangha talks this summer Tara Brach explores how when we are caught in a stress reaction, we are in a trance that cuts us off from our own creativity, full intelligence and capacity to be loving. She explores how mindfulness can help us to shift from the fight/flight response which in terms of the pandemic is unhelpful as there is very little we can control, to an attitude of attending and befriending our own experience whatever it is. While it’s natural to feel fear during times of great collective crisis, she says our challenge is that fear easily takes over our lives. She explores how the mindfulness and compassion can help us find an inner refuge in the face of fear, and deepen our loving connection with each other.
I agree with Tara and when I notice my own anxiety response to the pandemic crises I naturally return to mindfulness as my aide. As I do i notice over and over again how mindfulness shines a light on all of our experiences, anxiety included. While this journey through anxiety can be a challenging one, adopting a compassionate, non-judgmental attitude towards this experience is a powerful place to start, and this is what I invite any ready of this blog to do for yourself.
Simply speaking, anxiety is characterized by feelings of fear, worry, or unease. These feelings can range from subtle to strong, varying in the influence they have over our lives. It is a normal phenomenon that is linked to our stress response. However, for some people, it stands in the way of deep inner peace and contentment.
While anxiety is often understood to exist within the mind, it is important to understand that anxiety also shows up in the body.
Bodily symptoms of anxiety include:
- Feelings of panic and fear
- Feelings of helplessness and despair
- A sense of danger, most often not life-threatening
- Withdrawal from society, friends, and/or family
- Irritability and agitation
- Feelings of overwhelm
- Increased heart rate
- Chest pain and / or heart palpitations
- Upset tummy an other digestive issues
- Sleep disturbance and/or insomnia
Distinguishing Anxiety from Stress
Since we are all unique, anxiety can show up differently in each of us. Sometimes it’s easy to notice and other times not. While it might be similar to stress,(watch out for my upcoming blog exploring stress) anxiety is most often present in absence of real, imminent danger. While an acute stress response helps us to respond when we’re in danger, persistent anxiety has a negative impact on our ability to cope.
Help from an old friend
I had the pleasure of completing a masters in mindfulness based interventions in UDC Ireland with Dr Paul Dalton the Principal Clinical Psychologist at St Vincent’s University Hospital and Assoc. Professor of Psychology at UCD. St the beginning of the pandemic Paul identified coping techniques that may help which I am glad to remember here as I think they will help me and others as we move on in this period of pandemic. I am paraphrasing here but I believe he outlined three key points and then one framework / acronym FAST.
- The important thing to remember is that this is completely normal. Anxiety is a normal response to an abnormal situation and we are in an abnormal situation. It is to be expected that we would be more worried, frightened or scared,
- There are things that we can do that will help, and we have a responsibility at this moment to help ourselves, to manage our mind over the next period of time,
- What is going to get us through this is how we manage our mind and our hearts.”
Dr D’Alton suggests the best way to ensure we are working to manage our minds is to follow the acronym FAST.
F – focus on what we can control. How can I best help myself and others in this moment? For me the essence of this is kindness. How can I best show kindness to myself and to others in this moment?
A – avoid unreliable information and continual updates. Maybe listen to or watch news only once a day. Take a break from the mobile updates. Avoid sensationalism.
S – seek safe support. All of us need more than ever now social support networks. Even if you do not feel like it ( maybe especially when you do not feel like it) reach out to friends. Stay connected so you do not fall into isolation. If what you are experiencing is not the mild if unusual anxiety that is an utterly normal human response to something like this pandemic and something we can self manage with self awareness, self management and a little support ), but is a more severe form of anxiety then seek professional help. Start with your GP who will refer you to the most appropriate help and support. Take the step – help others to get involved and support you so that you may help yourself.
T– take a breath. Dr Dalton reminds us of the importance of taking a breath when we are anxious. Maybe in these time of heightened anxiety making sure to do some intentional breathing everyday to settle the nervous system. Below is my favourite breathing practise for when I notice rising anxiety in myself.
Soft Belly – a soothing mindfulness practise I do when I notice anxiety creeping in
I do this Soft Belly practise because I find it deeply relaxing and restorative in moments of either intense or diffuse anxiety. It gently and without efforting brings me back to feelings of peace, calm, and contentment. Here are the steps I use:
- Take a moment to settle into a comfortable position where you can be both alert and relaxed. See if you might soften the body..letting go of unnecessary tension in your belly and shoulder,
- Lower the eyes, soften the gaze or if you prefer close the eyes, and allow the hands to rest on the lap,
- Take a few moments
to scan the body, from the top of the head to the soles of the feet
and wherever possible, soften and release obvious areas of physical tension.
- Bring your attention to the breath, and breathe in through your nose
and out through your mouth. This may be feel strange at the beginning but persevere and you may find a it can be a very relaxing way to breathe.
Maybe saying to yourself as you do:
‘In through your nose
and out through your mouth.
In through your nose
and out through your mouth.’
- Now let the belly be soft.If the belly is soft,
The Science Bit
- As the belly softens more oxygen goes to the bottom of the lungs. There is better oxygen exchange. Oxygen then begins to move more easily into the blood, and through each cell in the body,
including the cells in the brain, therefore supplying the brain with the nourishment it needs .When the belly is soft, the vagus nerve is activated .This vagus ( wandering), nerve wanders up through the abdomen and chest, back to the central nervous system in the brain, promoting relaxation throughout the whole body. This relaxation response is a natural antidote to the older brain fight or flight stress response. Breathing deeply, activating the vagus nerve helps this relaxation to come,
and as the belly is soft, and you breathe deeply, all the other muscles in the body
begin to relax as well.)
- See if it helps to think of the word ‘Soft,’ as you breathe in, and ‘Belly’ as you breathe out
‘Soft” as you breathe in,
and “Belly” as you breathe out.
- The mind will wander –perfectly natural and nothing wrong with this. Each time you notice thoughts just gently unhook from the thought and gently bring your mind
back to “Soft” on the inhale, and “belly” on the exhale.
‘Soft, as you breathe in,
and Belly, as you breathe out.
Soft, as you breathe in,
and Belly, as you breathe out.’
Bringing the reduced anxiety into the rest of your day
- Now notice sounds in the room, become aware of the feet on the floor and when you are ready slowly open your eyes.
Notice how you feel…and notice what if anything has changed
from before you began to do this “Soft Belly” practice
to now. Maybe you feel a little calmer? Maybe your heartrate feels a little slower, or your shoulders are softer, have dropped a little.
- After taking time to notice the difference, the relaxed response in the body as the vagus nerve gets to work form an intention to bring this same quality of kind awareness, of soft relaxation in the core of your body and being,
with you throughout the rest of your day.
My own plan to manage Covit related anxiety
Firstly I recognise my generalised anxiety as a perfectly normal response to the current pandemic. Because I start there I realise I’m not a failed mindfulness teacher because I sometimes notice this rising sense of unease as I negotiate this exceptional set of circumstances I find myself in. Secondly I draw on that very experience and training in mindfulness based interventions to notice what is happening in myself, and so be in a position to both help myself and support others. Finally I commit to the following six steps which I have found most useful in managing my anxiety.
Six steps to manage Covit related anxiety
- Notice how I am and what is happening
- Take steps to control what I can
- Seek community
- Spend time in nature
- Plan for good rest and self care
- Take time to notice and say to others or record in writing moments of gratitude and joy each day.
‘Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well’ Jack Cornfield
Mindfulness in Covit 19 days.
Mindfulness is no magic pill. It is a simple practise which we need to learn and build, that allows us to live well whatever the weather of our lives. In doing so we find an inner peace and know how to create a little space between the stressful or painful experience that causes suffering and our response. It is in that space that we find our inner peace. Whether you participate in one of my courses developed specially for these pandemic days, or work one to one with me it will be my pleasure to help you to find this stable base in your particular life
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