Mindfulness is the art of being aware of your environment, your thoughts, your feelings and your sensations as they happen and becoming their observer.
It is about training your attention to focus on the present moment, on concentrating on a task rather than thinking, and on external rather than internal factors.
So what does all of this got to do with relieving anxiety?
Well, first of all, let’s understand the role of thoughts in anxiety. I find it helpful to think of anxiety not as something we have but something we do, or even better, something we think and imagine and therefore feel. The assumption behind this is that feelings follow thought. So change the way you think and you will change the way you feel. Change the way you feel and your behavior will change. Change your behavior and your life will change.
When we have fearful (anxious ) thoughts, the problem is not necessarily to do with the thoughts themselves but with the importance and meaning we give them. Often we identify our thoughts as facts rather simply thoughts, and that is the problem. When you think ‘something terrible will happen if I get out of the house’ for example, it is the fact that you are viewing this as a fact rather than simply a thought that causes trouble.
In fact, if you distanced yourself from it and treated it as simply another thought among others and refused to assign it more importance than that, you would lessen its impact.
Also, I find it useful to remember that for every negative thought there is always an opposite positive thought. Both are just thoughts, not facts. And their importance depends on how much attention you decide to give them.
You decide what to pay attention to and what to accept or reject. This you can do by challenging negative thoughts as not helpful and asking yourself what would be more helpful for you to think in order to feel better about whatever situation is causing you concern.
You Are Not Your Thoughts
First, though, you need to believe that you are not your thoughts. You need to believe that you are more than your thoughts, that you are an awareness aware of itself and that although you have a mind you are not your mind. Another way of understanding this is to imagine that your thoughts are like unruly teenagers in a house where although you have always been the master you have never exercised your authority.
Of course, the first step to do so is to believe that you are the master and that you can exercise your authority successfully because if you don’t the teenagers will act as if they are the masters and they will have power over you. Once you shift your belief it may take some time and practice to learn how to take charge effectively but if you believe you are the one who makes the decisions and train your attention with patience you will succeed.
Train Your Attention
The first step in training your unruly mind is to practice redirecting your attention away from yourself and what you feel/ think/are imagining, and concentrate by choice on something external: something that is happening outside of yourself or a task you are doing.
Starting with situations that you don’t find particularly scary or challenging this active practice will help you counter balance your tendency to over focus on threats and on yourself when you feel anxious.
For example: rather than worrying about yourself and how you are coming across during a conversation with a new acquaintance focus on the other person and ask them questions about themselves, paying attention to their answers and becoming curious about them.
Later practice in situations that are more challenging and progress gradually from the least to the most anxiety provoking situations, getting out of your comfort zone and facing your fears head on. If you cannot attend to a specific task, for example, if you are sitting in a crowded waiting room, direct your attention to your surroundings, noticing people, the features of the room, sounds an smells.
Focus On the Present
Finally, bring your attention back to the present. Anxious thoughts are thoughts about an imagined catastrophic future that exists only in your head. It is a big castle in the sky.
It cannot exist in the now. So get back to now, and remember not to take your fearful thoughts seriously.
They might be trying to help, but they aren’t really helping, are they?
So, say no to the negative fears that have only held you back til now and say yes to the voice in your head that says: no matter what I will survive!
Your anxious thoughts are as real as an imaginary friend. It is up to you to make up what that friend says. Make it say encouraging things. Make it work for you.
And most of all, observe how much easier life is when you relax into existence and trust in your abilities to deal with whatever challenge life throws at you, no matter how hard it may seem at first.
The most truly accomplished and successful people in life have a relaxed attitude. Some might have been predisposed to be like that but most of them have honed their talents through practice and dedication. Practice relaxing into existence and learning to expect the best out of situations. And when life throws you something you cannot change accept it and make the best of it.
Worrying is a mostly a learned habit and we can do away with it by becoming aware that we are simply scaring ourselves to death by believing in our fearful thoughts; Instead, we can take a deep breath, focus on the present and remind ourselves that we have all the resources we need to survive.
After all, if you always do what you always did you will always get what you always got. So do something different!
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