First, let me start by stating that I am not offering advice to those who are living with mental illness. This post is offered to those of us who occasionally notice that we are feeling anxious or fearful. And those who have noticed that, in these difficult times, ‘occasional’ may actually have become a little more than sporadic.
Let’s begin with the difference between fear and anxiety.
Fear is an emotional state that arises in response to a perceived, immediate threat. The bus is heading right toward you, fear arises and your body goes into reaction mode. A number of hard-wired physiological changes occur when your body is fearful. Your heart beats faster, adrenaline is released and the most reptilian part of your brain takes over your executive functioning of your brain. All of these changes are meant to support your ability to quickly react. In those moments, we don’t want the executive functioning part of our brain to analyze the situation: maybe the bus will stop, am I really in the way?, what will actually happen if it hits me?. No…we want the reactive part of our brain and body to be focused on just one thing…MOVE! The hard-wiring does just what it was meant to do. It helps us survive when faced with a real threat to our physical well-being.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a response to an anticipated threat to our well-being-and it can be to our physical, mental or emotional well-being. For example, ‘I just know that I am going to do a mediocre job at today’s meeting.’ All of the same physiological effects that occur when we are experiencing fear occur when we are experiencing anxiety. But, the body does not need it to physically react to the immediate threat (avoid the bus) and so all the extra cortisol and hormones, and the hijacking of our executive functioning of our brain takes a toll in the moment. And when the anxiety becomes common or prolonged, it can cause physical and emotional damage.
How Can Mindfulness Help Me Work With Anxiety?
First and foremost, notice when thoughts are arising that may or may not be true. Notice the anxious thoughts. There is no need to push them away, just notice that they ‘may or may not be true’. That is enough.
Second, pay attention to any sensations that arise along with the thoughts. Do you notice your neck muscles tightening, butterflies in your stomach, or a racing heart? If so, use those body sensations to help you understand what is happening. You might say to yourself ‘this is anxiety, this is what anxiety feels like for me’. This noticing and naming brings the executive functioning part of our brains back into the picture which is what we need to be responsive rather than reactive.
Finally, take a few intentional breaths and ask yourself what one small step you need to take right now to meet this moment with self-compassion and clarity. Be kind to yourself and recognize that working to interrupt the anxious thoughts and resulting reactivity in that moment is often the key to seeing a new way to meet the challenges of everyday life.