How mindfulness can help you manage anxiety

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So many people who experience anxiety on a regular basis think the solution to this is to somehow get rid of these feelings, when the reality is that everyone experiences anxiety. Some struggle with it more than others, but feeling anxious is more common than most people realise in our hyper stimulated, modern world. 

What is probably more helpful, and certainly more realistic, is aiming to increase your tolerance to anxiety, rather than hoping for a life without it.

And this is where mindfulness becomes very helpful. There are a number of ways that mindfulness practices can help with anxiety, and one of those is increasing your tolerance to anxiety itself. Because when you sit down to meditate consistently (and the consistency is very important), here's what happens: you sit with hunger, exhaustion, loneliness, pain, and any other uncomfortable state that happens to arise at that moment. And in doing so you increase your tolerance to it. You increase your ability to experience it without having to run from it, change it, fix it, or deny it. And that is very helpful indeed. 

What you'll notice is that there's no need to "do" anything at all about anxiety, once you increase your tolerance to it. Because what you've done is change your relationship to the experience of feeling anxious, and instead of thinking yourself in circles trying to make it go away, you can actually experience it as one of many experiences that arise and pass away. It's unpleasant, sure, but you needn't panic when you feel anxiety start to arise. And it becomes eminently more workable when you relate to anxiety in this way, rather than focusing on the details of why you're feeling anxious, or working so hard to avoid feeling that way (this is called experiential avoidance, by the way, and it's a very ineffectual way of dealing with any unpleasant experience, and makes your life very, very small). 

In using mindfulness to work with anxiety, it's important to note that it's helpful to establish a practice  before you're in the middle of a full blown panic attack. Sitting with intense anxiety when you don't have a solid practice is, at best, extremely challenging.

So here's an invitation: the next time you sit to meditate, become curious about your discomfort. Notice your reaction to it - perhaps this is when you end your session or start a narrative about why you're anxious, or engage in self - criticism about how you shouldn't' be feeling this way. Notice it all, with great kindness. And continue to sit anyway. Not in a "grit your teeth, brace yourself against this" sort of way. But in a "gee, this is uncomfortable, but I got this", sort of way. Treat yourself with incredible kindness, and take that quality off your meditation cushion and out into your life. And notice how this changes the way you manage anxiety the next time it pays you a visit.

NOTE: If you have a significant history of abuse or other trauma, you may want to get professional support in working with anxiety.