Did you know that in western countries around 14 to 29% of people are likely to suffer from an anxiety problem in their lifetime?
If anxiety is something that affects you personally, or someone you know, you probably understand the harm and misery it can cause.
Fortunately, meditation gives us ways to approach anxiety that can have a real impact on how it affects us. As steps, we can tackle them all for the greatest results, but even taking just the first can have a real impact on how we feel, lowering our anxiety levels to help us live calmer, happier lives.
Step one: The rational approach
To start, we need to look at anxiety logically to see why and how it affects us.
Think of the last time you felt anxious. Like most of us, you probably tried to fight the feeling, resisting it with an emotion like frustration, sadness, or ironically, more anxiety. But this response conditions us to think it's bad to feel anxious.
Then, we make things even worse by noticing the physical sensations that follow; the tight chest, the tense body - and our already anxious mind thinks, 'Oh I'm feeling this, I must be really anxious!' And so the cycle perpetuates.
We need to step out of this loop. But not by trying to stop anxiety, instead changing the way we relate to it.
Like any other emotion, anxiety isn't good or bad, it's just a passing thought or sensation. Learning mindfulness through meditation means that we can choose how we handle the feeling; the importance we give it and how long it stays with us. We learn to simply notice the sensations that anxiety brings us and how to be present with them, rather than getting caught up in what they represent. In effect, we're taking a step back, and this alone can interrupt the cycle.
Step two: The investigative approach
Next, we need to observe our anxiety by asking:
1. What is it?
2. Where does it come from?
3. Where do I feel it?
4. What does it feel like?
But to examine anxiety, first we need to welcome it. Mediation enables us to do this, and by doing so change the emotion from something we resist to something we embrace. Rushing to find the answers will cause more thinking, which may well bring more anxiety. So we must take our time, being curious, open and honest, as this will create a true and long-lasting shift in our perspective. Because in this step, the process is more important than the result - in many ways, it is the result.
Step three: The vulnerable approach
And now to the most rewarding part of the journey. It requires a more formal meditation technique where we drop our guard and let anything and everything arise in the mind. Sounds frightening? It can be, but it's also exciting and incredibly liberating.
Meditation teaches us to witness the mind with its thoughts and feelings from a place that's neutral and objective. For anxiety, it allows the mind to rest in the present moment, no longer overwhelmed by anxious thoughts and feelings.
And when one does come into the mind, instead of trying to block it, we allow it to arise, embrace it, and then, by bringing our attention back to present moment - let it go.
This works because it shows us that things are always changing. Sometimes anxiety is with us, sometimes it isn't. It also shows us that all minds behave similarly. For some, anxiety is replaced with sadness, anger or loneliness, but by recognising the pattern in our own mind, we see how similar patterns affect other people too. And with this understanding, we no longer feel isolated or alone, but very normal - with nothing to fear.
And finally, this approach softens the mind a little. We see that thoughts are just thoughts; a feeling is just a feeling - nothing more, nothing less. It allows the mind to be free, open and ready to experience life exactly as it is - just without the background hum of anxiety.
This is a blog series produced in partnership with Headspace, a project designed to demystify meditation. With scientifically proven techniques that are easy-to-earn and fun-to-do, Headspace can be used every day to experience a healthier and happier mind.
You can try it on for size with the free Take10 program by visiting headspace.com