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Using Mindfulness to Calm Anxiety

As I was grabbing the grocery bags from the delivery driver, she apologized for answering her phone, telling me how worried she was about her daughter. Her daughter’s anxiety had become so severe, she was now calling her several times a day. The conversation then moved to loss, as she explained how they were devastated by the loss of her mother. Her mother was the matriarch and the person they depended on.

Worries and concerns creep up and eventually become debilitating. When my ex-husband passed, it was sudden and unexpected, and insomnia hit shortly after. It settled in for several years. My worries arrived at 1:30am and presented themselves as a list, which tied my mind up for hours. Exhausted and frustrated I would wake up wondering what was happening to me. Little did I know at the time, this was way my mind was dealing with a major loss.

Anxiety can bring you down in body and spirit, sending your mind into a state of restlessness. Sometimes that energy gets channeled into your body, giving you a shortness of breath, shaky hands or a fidgety foot. Sometimes it shows up in rapid speech or a sudden irritation with people. Or like in my case, sleeplessness.

The important thing is to not judge it or criticize yourself. In Buddhist theory, they call it maitri, which is loving kindness to oneself. Spiritually it’s important to have loving kindness to others, but vitally important to have it towards yourself. We are human and we all naturally respond to things, sometimes functionally and sometimes not so functionally. Welcome to being human.

The important thing is awareness. Becoming aware to what is happening in your mind and in your body is the first step towards healing and change.

Mindfulness is one way to become more aware. And it’s quite simple. Most of us already practice it. This is about what you are paying attention to. It’s about moving your mind from autopilot into a natural state of awareness. Mindfulness is learning to focus your consciousness in the moment on your thoughts. This is one step in the process of self-awareness and the key foundational skill in building emotional intelligence.

One skill we are naturally good as is self-regulating. That’s the part of you that settles down when you are so tired you just need to sleep. Or someone comes to you and instantly you know they need support, so you become calm and quiet to hear what they have to say. We often use these skills naturally and instinctively. We slow our breathing, calm our bodies, clear our thoughts, and focus our attention. Getting better at these skills can help regulate your thoughts and emotions when you feel like they are hijacking you. When you stop, slow things down, breath and focus, things become sharper and clearer. You take charge and as a result, feel less anxious or fearful.

The wonderful thing about mindfulness is that you don’t have to head to the Ashram to chant for hours (unless you want to). You don’t have to change your religious beliefs or ideology, start eating vegetarian food or drinking Kombucha. You just have to be willing to sit for a few minutes and be quiet. It’s that pause you instinctively do before you answer a hard question, it’s those moments when you feel calm, lighter and at peace. When I became aware that I had insomnia, I surrendered to it. I admitted to myself that there was something in my world that felt out of control, and I admitted that it would probably take a while for it to subside. So, I got good at naps and became used to having insomnia. I have myself permission to have that long list of issues to shift through in my mind. And it passed. Now when I sleep, I am so grateful for the peacefulness that comes, not only from the sleep but from the settling in my soul that allows my mind and body to rest. I had to work through that list and through the stages of grief to get there and it was worth it.

Here are a few ways to develop mindfulness:

  • Set a timer for 3 minutes, sit quietly and focus on your breath. Some count their breaths in and their breath out. Try this in the morning when you wake up or as you go to sleep at night.

  • Start your day with a simple meditation.

  • End your day with a prayer of gratitude.

  • Go for a walk outside. Be in nature. Focus on what is around you and how it makes you feel in that moment.

Skills you have for the everyday moments:

  • Focus on the things you can control. Everything else is just fodder.

  • Slow down your breathing. Breath work slows your heart rate down and calms, triggers different hormones and chemicals in your body. It also sends different messages to your brain. Here’s a 30 second exercise that is one of my favorites:

  • Let go of a few things and learn how to say “no” to taking on more.

  • Find a time and place to share your anxiety with someone. Talking and storytelling have both been proven to aid people’s symptoms of anxiety, PTSD, grief, and depression. Maybe the sharing is over a phone call with a family member. Perhaps it’s sharing in a confidential counseling space. It can be with a pastor or friend. Or writing a letter to yourself in a journal.

  • Rest and relax. This is so good for the mind. Real down time -as in relax and chill out! Make time to sleep-in, watch a movie, go for a walk or work out. Relax, and slow it down for a bit.

  • Trust your own process. The thoughts and feelings we have serve a purpose and when we acknowledge them and give them space to be, our soul will naturally shift– either to where we need help or towards the next stage of our growth. Everything serves a purpose, and as a friend recently said, in the universe, on a metaphysical level, nothing is lost, and nothing is wasted.

“Just when the caterpillar thought the world was ending, he turned into a butterfly.”

- Anonymous proverb

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