The Anxious Mind
I live in a city and every day I take public transportation to work. I take a train to the bus, but on nice days or days when I’m not running late, I can walk the rest fo the way to work. I love walking and having time to take in the air, the weather, and the sights and sounds of both nature and the city on my way to work.
Recently I began to realize that I spend a lot of my walk lost in thought. I’m not really seeing what’s around me or noticing the blue sky or the songs of birds or much else. Why? Because I become lost inside my own head.
This lack of mindfulness is an issue in and of itself, but what I began to notice was more troubling, and that is the nature of my thoughts:
- What will the day ahead bring?
- Will things go well or will some major obstacle arise?
- Bills that need to be paid.
- Phone calls to be made
- email to be answered…
All of this and more become a constant litany of thoughts that arouse anxiety and discomfort.
The good news is that I became aware of it. Sometimes our thought and behavior patters become so engrained that we do not even know what we are doing. We may continue to operate the same way for many years, not noticing our lack of mindfulness.
The Cycle of Anxiety
Anxiety can be very exhausting, not only emotionally but also physically. This is because anxiety comes from a perceived threat. If someone points a gun at you, you may well become anxious about whether they are going to shoot you. Your heart rate will increase, your palms may sweat, and you may feel gastrointestinal upset as your stomach churns with acid. As a response to this threat, you may decide to run away—a wise choice under the circumstances.
But now let’s say that I have to deal with an angry boss or a project that is failing. Neither of these things is going to kill me, but they cause the same physical reactions. Why? Because the body can’t tell what is life-threatening and what is not. The mind starts the cycle of anxiety and the body follows along automatically.
Most anxiety-provoking thoughts focus on the future. Will something happen or what if something happens, or what will the outcome of something be? Death, of course, is the ultimate anxiety-provoking thought, and so we push thoughts of death away every time they surface. Unfortunately this does nothing to change the situation or to calm the physical anxiety responses we experience.
None of this can change the outcome. All it can do is make you crazy as your mind ‘rehearses’ its response to things that may happen. And the constant stress of anxiety takes its toll on your body as you experience the physical responses to your anxious thoughts.
The best weapons I’ve found to fight anxiety and worry are always at my disposal, if I remember to use them.
- The first is breathing. Focusing on your breath brings you out of your head and starts to open your mind back up. In addition, when you pay attention to your breath, you can see right away the way that your anxious thoughts are affecting your body. When you find yourself deep inside your own head, worrying away, take a few deep, conscious breaths. As you move your breathing from faster and shallower to slower and deeper, you feel more in control of the situation again.
- Next, ask yourself ‘am I ok right now, in this moment?’ This thought helps you to realize that nothing threatening is happening to you right in this moment. Again, it opens some space for you and gets you out of the claustrophobic space your thoughts are creating.
Now that you’ve gotten some control back and broken the cycle of self-created panic, ask ‘can I let this go?’ You will probably find that just thinking this will cause your muscles to relax and your mind to calm.
Be mindful of your anxious thoughts, of worry. Recognize them. Work with them. Label them. Then let them go. They may never go away entirely, but they will slowly shrink in size and occupy your mind less and less, leaving room for other, more joyous thoughts and observations.