Many people think anxiety starts in the mind, but physical symptoms can appear long before the panic sets in. Mindfulness can tap into the early warning signs.
Maybe you’re familiar with the term mindfulness; maybe you’re not. If you suffer from anxiety in any form, you probably are familiar with the dreadful thoughts and feelings that come with each incident. Your mind might tunnel-focus on the stressor at hand, or spin a bunch of “what if” scenarios that only heighten your stress. But what if you could catch yourself before your mind takes this horrendous plunge?
This is where the technique of mindfulness comes into play. Mindfulness teaches you how to be aware of yourself in the present moment without judgment. According to a study by the Massachusetts General Hospital, this technique is thought to work by decreasing a person’s tendency to ruminate, linger on negative thoughts. Another study by the National Institute of Health shows that mindfulness may help regulate emotion by decreasing connectivity between the hippocampus (the part of your brain that’s overreactive in anxious people) and the rest of your brain.
Focusing your attention on physical sensations can be especially helpful for those with anxiety. Early indicators of stress like muscle tension, elevated heart, and nausea are often overlooked. Awareness of your body’s stress cues will give you a better grasp of your anxiety and guide you in treating it.
Mindfulness Alerts You to an Episode Before it Begins
A common complaint amongst those with anxiety is that the feeling comes with little warning beforehand. The sudden onset can disrupt your work or social life and leave you reeling. Mindfulness can help warn you of these episodes before they occur.
There are always early signs of stress, but they often go unnoticed. When the brain detects a threat, it sends out stress hormones like cortisol that alter the homeostasis of your body. These changes usually show up first in your muscles, pulse, or respiratory rate. If you’re trying to escape danger, these changes give your body an extra push to fight or flee. But if your life isn’t in danger, like when you’re about to give a speech, these adaptations become an obstacle.
When you practice mindfulness, you will learn how to check in with your body and notice what’s going on. Once you get in the habit of doing this, you are more likely to be aware of these early stress signals. This awareness will allow you to take action before you’ve reached a state of full-blown panic.
Can Help You Identify Your Triggers
One of the most crucial steps in treating your anxiety is discovering what sets it off. Unfortunately, this can be one of the most challenging aspects of treatment because people often disconnect from their surroundings when they feel anxious. This makes it harder to pinpoint the provocation.
However, if you practice mindfulness and feel the tensions rise, you can take the next step and look around: what’s going at the moment? Where are you? What are you doing? What time of day is it? Who are you with? All of these details are important because even the smallest things can trip the switch and make you anxious. Your brain may come to associate specific cues with danger, and this can trigger a stress response even if you aren’t consciously aware of a threat.
Once you figure out what’s triggering your anxiety, you can seek treatment targeting those specific sources. Or, you can adjust your plans to minimize exposure to those triggers, although doing this is not beneficial for treatment in the long term. No two people will have the same strategy for dealing with their anxiety. Always seek the help of a licensed mental health professional if questions or problems arise.
Body-Focused Techniques Can Help Relieve Anxiety
There are lots of methods to get you in the habit of practicing mindfulness. Meditation is one of the most common ways people practice this technique. Besides bringing awareness, meditation can release tension and reverse negative symptoms of anxiety.
This meditation focuses on the body, and it’s one of the easiest to do. You sit or lie in a comfortable position and bring attention and feel each part of your body one at a time. Over time, this will develop a stronger connection between your mind and body. It will also get you in the habit of checking in with yourself and noticing sensations as they arise.
If meditating isn’t your thing, don’t worry. It can be hard to sit still and make your mind slow down, especially if your new to the practice or in the throes of an episode. If you’re just beginning, it’s helpful to practice meditating for short periods at a time and then progress to longer sessions.
If you find it impossible to do this at all, start with grounding techniques to help settle your mind in the present moment. After doing that for a while, you can build up the attention to try meditation or simple wellbeing checks. No one technique will work for everyone, but with enough perseverance, you can find the tool that’s most helpful to you.
An anxious mind is only tuned in to the threats, but mindfulness gets your brain to switch the channel. This technique isn’t easy by any means. Your brain will fight against you when you try to do this. Don’t be hard on yourself if you find it difficult to pay attention, especially at first. Like everything in life, it’s about practice. I encourage anyone who suffers from anxiety to give it a go – you never know how it might change things for you.