Mindfulness for anxiety is not what you think it is.
Although mindfulness is everywhere these days–in your yoga class, your instagram feed, and advertised on streaming services, most people have serious misconceptions about mindfulness and how it works.
This post will outline the most common ways people misunderstand and misuse mindfulness and then explain how you can adjust your beliefs to be more helpful.
Misconception #1: Mindfulness for anxiety is to increase relaxation
While mindfulness or meditation practices might result in relaxing, that is not the goal. Mindfulness is about allowing whatever experiences we are having just to be.
Sometimes that might be a relaxing experience.
Or it might be an emotional experience.
It could even be a boring experience.
Bringing mindful awareness to each of these experiences is equally valuable. We don’t go into a mindfulness practice expecting a particular kind of outcome, other than awareness.
Misconception #2: Mindfulness for anxiety is about paying perfect attention
Mindfulness practice is about paying attention, but not perfectly. It’s a natural condition of the human mind to wander. Our thoughts stray to the past or move into the future. We may pick a focus of attention for a mindfulness practice, maybe the breath or different areas of our body with a body scan.
These targets of attention are meant to be anchors for when we notice our attention has gone somewhere else. When we notice this, we acknowledge it and gently place our attention back on our target. We do this over and over.
This is the work of mindfulness, not a failure of mindfulness.
Misconception #3: Mindfulness for anxiety is about emptying the mind
Mindfulness is not about having an empty mind. After a few practices of meditation, it’s common for people to think that meditation is not for them because they had “too many thoughts.” Again, this is part of having a human mind. You cannot clear your mind of thoughts for any reasonable amount of time. Again, this is not the goal. The goal is to bring awareness to our thoughts and experiences. This, with time, can lead to a quieting of the mind but not a clearing of the mind.
Now that you know what mindfulness is not, you can better understand what mindfulness is.
The Right Mindset for Mindfulness
The following attitudes of mindfulness are described by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book Full Catastrophe Living. They’re summarized here, but reading the full book is highly recommended to understand these ideas more fully.
A key element of mindfulness is developing a stance of non-judgemental awareness. Kabat-Zinn describes this as being “an impartial witness to your own experience.” Being nonjudgmental is about stepping away from your own experience and seeing it for what it is.
When you begin practicing mindfulness, you might be surprised at how quickly you sort things into “good,” “bad,” and “neutral” categories. These judgments are constant and exhausting. It’s hard to find peace when your mind is constantly chattering and evaluating.
The first step of mindfulness is simply noticing these judgments. You don’t have to stop your mind from judging. You just have to notice the mind doing it. Something like “I’m having the thought that this is boring.” Or maybe, “I’m noticing the thought that he’s selfish.” You might also use, “I’m thinking she’s talking too much.”
Practicing allowing your experience to unfold in its own time is a form of patience. The desire to rush the process, change your experience, and hurry up to get to the next (better) thing are incompatible with mindfulness. Take a breath and give yourself some time.
Be in this moment as it is.
3. Beginner’s mind
The concept of beginner’s mind can help develop your skills in mindfulness for anxiety. This idea comes from the notion of having an experience as if it were the very first time. Over time, we stop things as they are and see them as we expect them to be. Kabat-Zinn calls this “seeing them through the veil of your own thoughts and opinions.”
You are probably very used to seeing your pet. Practice beginner’s mind with them. Are you seeing them as they are, with fresh eyes, as if for the first time? Or are you hardly noticing them, seeing them as you expect them to be? Practice with your partner, your family, your co-workers. Practice with yourself.
Noticing expectations and assumptions allows you to free yourself from being stuck in a rut. You can take in new information and act in new ways.
Anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty can spring from a lack of trusting yourself. Messages from society, social media, coaches, teachers, or parents may have led you to believe that you’re doing it wrong. Putting too much emphasis on what influencers or people in positions of authority believe, rather than what you believe, leads to feeling unsure and shaky in your sense of self.
Slowing down and making time for yourself with consistent meditation builds trust. It allows you to connect with your experiences, rather than avoid your experiences. Slowing down builds space to listen to and see your true thoughts, feelings, and reactions rather than what you “should” think, feel, or do. Making time to listen to your internal voice allows you to honor and validate your experience.
This attitude is crucial to mindfulness for anxiety and one of the most difficult to achieve. We are often in a mode of working toward a goal and striving to make changes. We most likely start a mindfulness practice to achieve some goal. Non-striving is about intentionally giving up any ideas about achieving a goal.
It’s about doing mindfulness for the sake of being present, not for personal development, decreasing anxiety, or improving attention.
Striving actually undermines the process of mindfulness, which is just about paying attention and allowing things to be as they are.
Sometimes the best way to reach a goal is to stop pursuing it in the ways you always have. Try instead to simply see things as they are and allow things to unfold with patience.
Kabat-Zinn writes “By intentionally cultivating acceptance, you are creating the preconditions for healing.” We waste a lot of time wishing things were different, refusing to see things as they actually are, and feeling angry. Very often we have to move though very emotional and difficult stages before reaching a place of acceptance. Working on a willingness to see things as they are can help you reach acceptance more quickly.
As an aside, acceptance doesn’t mean complacency or tolerating an unhealthy situation. It doesn’t mean giving up on goals or hopes to change things or to challenge injustice.
Acceptance means seeing things accurately and clearing your mind of judgements, desires, or assumptions and fears that may be clouding your way forward.
7. Letting Go
Letting go is about developing some healthy distance between our observer selves and our experiences. We tend to want to push some thoughts and feelings away but cling to others. This attitude makes mindfulness more difficult.
Holding on is the opposite of letting go. Looking at the ways we hold on may show us ways that we can practice letting go.
When we are willing to allow positive thoughts and feelings to come and go in the same way we want negative thoughts and feelings to come and go, we are closer to the attitude of letting go.
Mindfulness for anxiety can be a powerful tool in your tool box. It also unlocks other therapy skills that can be tremendously helpful. If you’d like to work with one of our therapists on developing your mindfulness practice, please schedule your free, 15 minute consultation today.