How To Overcome Anxiety With Mindfulness

18/10/2010 12:39 | Updated 22 May 2015

Flickr: Sweety Sana

Worrying about the future, money, work or relationships is perfectly natural. But when that worry starts to impact on your daily life, you could be suffering from anxiety.

One in six adults in the UK have experienced a "neurotic health problem", the most common being anxiety and depressive disorders like seasonal affective disorder (SAD), say anxiety disorders charity Anxiety UK.

While it can feel like things are out of control, you can learn to reduce your anxiety with some simple mindfulness practice.

Once you've managed to take charge of your anxiety, it will naturally start to get better. Follow our expert advice to treating and beating your anxiety below.

Anxiety is not random

"It is important to understand that anxiety, like most emotional reactions, has a structure," explains Dr Peter Strong, a specialist in mindfulness-based psychotherapy.

"It is not a random process, but produced by the combination of two components: thought structures and associated emotions and physical feelings.

Dr Strong says the path to controlling anxiety involves changing these internal negative thought loops and beliefs. However, most people find this very hard to do.

Why worry is so hard to stop

"Those suffering from anxiety know at a conceptual level that the worry is irrational and not helpful, but no amount of self-talk seems to change the anxiety. This is because there is another component that's actually much more important than the content of the negative thoughts and beliefs - something I call Emotional Feeling Energy," explains Dr Strong..

EFE is what gives meaning and power to our thoughts. When we suffer from anxiety, large concentrations of emotional energy become attached to the words or beliefs.

The healing power of freeing emotion

Dr Strong says, "If we can find a way to release this trapped energy, then the thoughts and beliefs will lose their power and compulsive domination over our thinking. They will soon become replaced with more appropriate thoughts."

Although you may find yourself slipping back into negative thinking - old habits are hard to break - without the emotional investment, or the power attached to those thoughts, it will fade away over time.

Focusing on releasing the trapped emotional energy that has become attached to habitual thinking is one of the primary focuses of mindfulness-based therapies.

Awareness is the key

The first step is to become aware of our negative thought patterns, so we need to train ourselves to identify these reactions. This is most important, because we can't change what we can't see.

Dr Strong says we must make our reactions visible by paying very close attention to catch them as and when they arise.

"After mastering this, we shift our attention away from the content or story that forms the cognitive structure of the anxiety reaction, to the emotional feeling quality that gives it power. This is called 'sitting with the emotion' " explains Dr Strong.

"We learn to sit with our anxiety, without getting caught up in further reactivity and thinking, or in trying to attack the negative thoughts. We are, in fact, learning to turn our attention towards the reaction, and this changes everything."

Practice the mindfulness exercise below to gain control of your negative thought patterns.

How to control your anxiety: a mindfulness exercise

1. Sit down and get comfortable. Close your eyes. Allow yourself to relax and practice basic mindfulness of breathing to help steady the mind.

2. Open the field of your awareness until it feels like a large space.

3. Introduce an anxiety emotion into this space and experiment with just sitting with it as you would with a friend: looking and listening very carefully with interest and an open mind, without trying to push it away or change anything.

4. Find the colour that best fits the feeling. If this seems difficult, give yourself time and trust what comes up.

5. Experiment with surrounding that colour with another colour. Try the exact opposite colour first and notice the shift in feeling the intensity of the anxiety.

6. Develop this imagery and try other modifications in size, position and movement.

7. Continue monitoring the change in intensity on a one to ten scale. When the anxiety has reduced by at least 50%, open your eyes and take a break before returning for another round.

8. Repeat the whole process five to ten times for three to four days. Notice how your perceptions change each day.

It is easier to do this with a mindfulness expert but you will be surprised at how quickly things change once you get down to the detailed sensory level, made possible through focused mindfulness. You can also try this exercise with a friend - describing your thoughts out loud - to help overcome your anxiety.


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