One of my pet peeves (and I have many) is when people say, “mindfulness doesn’t work for me.”
I always ask, “what did you expect it to do?”
They invariably say, “relax me,” “calm me down,” or “clear my mind.”
This is the basic misunderstanding: we don’t use mindfulness as a way to control our anxiety but rather as a way to create space between our awareness and our actions. The way we use it in ACT or MCBT (mindfulness-based cognitive behavior therapy) is to experience the moment as it is versus what our brain tells us it is.
In simple terms, when our brain tells us we’re in danger (kicking in excess anxiety), mindful awareness can help us assess whether that’s true or not.
I first learned about mindfulness and started my own practice in 2006. I attended a week-long training with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. on mindfulness-based stress reduction. I’ve always liked the way Jon defines mindfulness:
“the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”
Let’s break that down into its 2 components: awareness of the present moment (what we experience with our 5 senses) and without judgement, evaluation, or interpretation.
Most people understand the first component but are less practiced in the latter one. Noticing without judging.
I get excited when my clients start their own practice and come back saying how shocked they are at how much they judge every moment. As you read this, notice what you see (words on a page), what you hear, what you smell, taste and how your body feels against the chair or floor.
Can you just notice without any evaluative component (e.g., “this is good,”, “this sucks,” “why can’t my dog stop barking,” “I suck at this; my mind is wandering”)
Since mindfulness is a perspective, we can practice it at any moment. My bias, however, is that it’s easier to practice when I meditate (though you don’t need a meditation practice to drop into present-moment awareness).
I know, I know, people bristle at the thought of “meditation,” but remember that it’s simply a discreet period of time to practice mindfulness.
Now that we know what it is, let’s discuss why mindfulness can help in anxiety treatment.
1. Helps teach us how to distinguish the “what is” from the “what if.”
This is very helpful when trying to shift how you respond. It’s so easy to get caught up in the web of what if’s when we’re anxious.
2. When we’re able to slow down and differentiate reality from the movie in our mind, we can remind ourselves that thoughts and feelings are temporary mental experiences. They’re not necessarily facts, predictions or signs of anything.
3. The faster we notice we’re down the rabbit hole, the quicker we can drop our resistance to our anxiety experience. The more we struggle against our experience, the stronger and more persistent it becomes. This struggle is what Sally Winston, Psy.D. and Marty Seif, Ph.D. call “paradoxical effort.” We think doing more makes our anxiety better when it really makes it worse. We want to do less, so the experience can pass.
4. Meditation is a great place to practice “urge surfing,” or riding out an urge to act impulsively. For example, when I sit down to practice, I notice I’m more aware of itches. Instead of scratching the itch, I practice letting it be there. I move my awareness away from the sensation. I experience the natural peak and pass of the urge. This has helped me allow and accept bigger urges without giving in like when I’m really anxious and want reassurance.
5. We learn how to focus on one thing at a time, an antidote to our multitasking culture. Having this awareness takes practice. We’re training our brain to go where we want it to go. This can be very helpful when we’re working to stop ruminating and worrying, both behaviors under our control.
Consistency and practice are key. Creating new neural pathways takes intentional effort and lots and lots of practice.