In today’s society, anxiety is an epidemic that runs rampant.
I’m not referring to the occasional butterflies in your stomach before an important job interview, or the anxious feeling when your infant child is sick and you fear the absolute worst. No.
What I am referring to is the crippling anxiety that keeps you awake at night, interferes with your life to the extent that you no longer function optimally. Your goals fall by the wayside, and your life becomes a fruitless effort to stay afloat emotionally. All the while, you flounder amidst the turbulence of your own mind.
Its stream of thoughts that never seems to end, its pessimistic slant, its interminable rumination.
What if…? becomes your mind’s mantra. Always fearing the worst potential outcome. Worrying. Ruminating. Obsessing. Perpetually afraid that things will go wrong. Unfortunately, many know the feeling only too well.
We can attribute this commonality to the widespread prevalence of anxiety disorders. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect “40 million adults in the United States,” or an astonishing “18 percent of the population”. A myriad of reasons exist to explain this unfortunate phenomenon, but that’s a different article for a different time.
For now, let’s focus on mindfulness and its powerful role in tackling anxious thoughts. What many people fail to realize is the immense role being present plays in coping with anxiety.
It’s actually quite simple. Anxiety only exists in cooperation with the past or the future. By nature, anxiety is built upon a firm foundation of rumination, fear, and negative thinking patterns. Without these components, anxiety would cease to exist.
Anxiety also functions cyclically. In a rather vicious cycle, anxious thoughts constantly feed themselves, fattening them up like pigs for slaughter. Without the slaughter. Instead, the thoughts grow stronger and stronger, entrapping its victim further. Making it harder and harder to break free from anxiety.
A truly vicious cycle. What needs to be done? Simply break the cycle.
Since anxiety’s inherent existence relies heavily on not being present, it is crucial to understand how your anxiety contributes to that. Think about whatever anxious thoughts you have had recently. Write them down in a journal, if you want.
Let’s say you’re feeling anxious about an upcoming presentation.
Ugh… Presentation tomorrow. What a disaster that will be.
Such thoughts are borne out of a negative thinking pattern known as fortune telling. In the field of psychology, fortune telling is a destructive pattern of thinking which leads the individual to predict negative outcomes without logically evaluating the situation.
Simply put, they assume the worst. They never give themselves a fair chance because in their anxious mind, the outcome has already been determined. Truthfully, it hasn’t. That’s precisely where mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness, by its inherent nature, calls for being fully present. Such presence is comprised simply of existing in the present moment.
Engagement with the present requires disengagement from the past and the future. Obsessing about past mistakes and ruminating endlessly about the awful things that could happen — these become impossible feats when confronted with a present mind.
The reason is excruciatingly simple. A present mind leaves no room for the past or the future. Whenever you are truly present, anxiety loses its power. Mindfulness is awareness of the present moment; therefore, it requires acceptance of the present in its entirety, along with whatever anxious thoughts you are currently experiencing.
Accepting anxious thoughts is crucial to eliminating them once and for all. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, it makes sense. When you accept anxious thoughts instead of merely ignoring them, you become an active observer of your thoughts. Observe, accept, and embrace them.
As an observer, you maintain a certain degree of detachment from the situation. Imagine yourself as the scientist, observing the variables logically. Your anxious thoughts are now variables. You observe them, but you are no longer an active participant. You are logical and impartial. With this mindset, anxious thoughts can be interpreted with an entirely new perspective. Logic replaces emotion.
Once the mindset shifts from emotionally to logically driven, the entire mental perspective changes. No longer are you a slave to your anxiety; now, your anxious thoughts are within reach. You observe them, connect with them, but at no point do they overtake you. For that would require active mental participation in your thoughts. You are merely an observer.
Although it is certainly easier said than done, graduating to the mindset of a mindful observer is incredibly important. Mindfulness allows the individual to make a powerful transformation with regards to their state of mind and their potential to overcome crippling anxiety.
Once this transformation is made, challenging anxious thoughts becomes possible. Challenging, not ignoring. It is vital that you understand the difference; while the former is an effective technique against anxiety, the latter will only exacerbate it. Denial is merely an emotional band-aid that attempts to hide the wound festering underneath.
But the myriad techniques that exist to challenge anxious thinking patterns are a story for a different time. Purposefully so — you must master mindfulness first, which in this context involves accepting anxious thoughts, before attempting to challenge them. One foot in front of the other. Baby steps.
Right now, suffice it to say that mindfulness is as important a tool as ever in the arduous endeavor to tackle anxiety. Mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness. Write it down! Learn to be mindful. Learn to be present. Learn to exist in the now. Only then will you experience true, unbridled happiness, an accomplishment that anxiety will never achieve.