In my practice, I often use mindfulness as an intervention to help people with many different concerns. As an anxiety specialist, it is no surprise that most of my clients have some form of anxiety; and I have seen mindfulness become a valuable tool for countless individuals to better manage their worries. If you’re not sure what exactly mindfulness is, check out my blog post Mindfulness: What It Is and Why It's Important for some clarity.
So how exactly does mindfulness help with anxiety? The answer requires a little metacognition--thinking about your thinking. Stop for a minute and consider how much of our mental energy is spent thinking about the past (e.g., “I can’t believe I said that!”) or the future (e.g., “Tonight I have to….”). While this is very commonplace, it leaves us mentally checked out in the past or future, making us live our present-moment lives on autopilot. Our bodies are completing tasks in the present while our minds aren’t with us. This “mind-LESS-ness” often leads to errors, forgetting things, or even clumsiness. People with anxiety tend to be the future-focusers, whereas people who tend to ruminate about the past may experience more depression.
Mindfulness practice is a tool to bring our minds to the present moment, focused on what we are doing or what is happening right here, right now. This present-focus allows us to fully engage in each moment, rather than going through the motions while our brains are focused on things that haven’t (and may never) occur. In our busy, modern lives, I believe it is unrealistic to think one can be mindful 100% of the time. Of course, we have to think about the past and the future sometimes. But when we add in more practice of consciously focusing on the here and now throughout our days, we find more moments of peace, relaxation, and calm. This is because the past may be a minefield of memories that conjure emotions of guilt, shame, regret, or anger. And the future may produce anxiety, worry, or fear of the unknown. But this exact moment, right now? Right here...right now? Most of the time, THIS moment is okay, not producing any significant emotion.
My clients that have experienced a decrease in anxiety with mindfulness do many different mindfulness exercises that I teach them in session. One such exercise is a brief present-moment “check-in” several times throughout their day. This check-in may involve either mentally scanning their body to notice physical sensations, or a “senses check-in” in which they note what they see, hear, smell, taste, or feel in the moment. They are able to do these types of check-ins anywhere, no matter what they are doing, and without anyone else noticing. The most successful clients practice mindfulness all throughout the day, not only when they are feeling anxious. Practice makes the skill of dropping past or future thinking and pulling the mind to the here and now more automatic. Then, in times of heightened anxiety, they are better able to call upon this practiced skill to focus on what is happening right now in order to quiet the future-focused, anxiety provoking thoughts.
Give yourself the gift of the present by practicing mindfulness exercises many times throughout your day. For more specific exercises, see my post 10 Ways to Be More Mindful in Your Daily Life.