How to Use Mindfulness to Overcome Anxiety

Oa Garrigan Meditating

“It started off with tightness in my stomach – a familiar sign that something is amiss. I then got hit by a torrent of negativity. I managed to keep things together in front of my wife and son, but it really did feel like my world was falling apart…my fears engulfed me. I felt on the verge of panic, and I wasn’t able to sleep – this led to deterioration in my concentration levels…”

This is an example of an episode in my life where I felt overcome by anxiety. I wrote about it a couple of years ago in a post called ‘I Will Not Allow My Life to Fall Apart’. At the time, it seemed certain that I was going be financially ruined, and I felt so guilty that I could barely look at my wife and son. I’d given up alcohol five years before this, and I’d assumed the bad days behind me, but this was equal to my worst days as a drunk. The thought of drinking never crossed my mind, but there were a couple times when I felt tempted to jump off a cliff to escape the mental torture.

I’m sure I would have had a complete breakdown, if I had not remembered to use mindfulness to deal with the situation.

“The stress of the last couple of weeks has caused so much internal tension that it feels like there is a huge lump of coal around my abdomen area. I spent a few hours last night just focusing my attention on this. I imagine that I’m massaging it and creating space for it. I believe that this tension has reached such a state because of my resistance. I’ve now stopped resisting it, and I’m just feeling it.”

By mindfully putting my attention on a physical sensation in my body, I was able to pull myself out of a pit of despair. It was an impressive demonstration of the power of this technique, and it left me in no doubt that mindfulness is the perfect tool for dealing with my anxiety.

What is Mindfulness?

I would describe mindfulness as being focused on the present moment without resistance or judgements. There is nothing magical about it, and it is not something that was invented by the Buddha or anyone else. Mindfulness is our natural state – it’s how young kids experience their world.

Mindfulness practice is a deliberate attempt to generate more mindfulness. There are lots of techniques for doing this, and the most popular approach in the west at the moment is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. It seems to be a fairly effective programme, but completing an 8-week course is no guarantee that we are going to be mindful when the shit hits the fan. I thought I knew all about mindfulness before my financial crisis, but I still suffered for weeks before I remembered to use it.

Becoming More Mindful

The problem with mindfulness practice is it can just become something I do. I went to martial arts classes for years, but as soon as I’m faced with real-life aggression, all that training is forgotten. Mindfulness practice can be the same unless it becomes part of who I am. This is why I practice mindfulness throughout the day by repeatedly bringing my attention to the present moment – the more I do this, the better my life becomes.

Most mindfulness programs use breath-focus meditation and body scan techniques for developing mindfulness. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this, but I find it more effective to use moving meditation. The technique I prefer is Mahasati Meditation, and it was developed here in Thailand. It is performed with the eyes open, and it requires putting attention on physical movements of the arms. I find this makes it much easier for me to continue being mindful at the end of the session. (I intend to write a post in the near future explaining my reasons for why Mhasati meditation is a great choice for developing mindfulness).

It is important for me to remember that mindfulness practice is just a tool to encourage me to become more mindful. It is being mindful and not practicing mindfulness that is completely transforming my life for the better. Every time I bring my attention back to the moment, I rediscover the peace I’ve always longed for. The escape from anxiety I once believed could be found with alcohol is waiting for me every time I choose to be here right now.

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