When anxiety grips you, it’s hard to think of anything beyond the reality of it. Your mind starts racing from one thing to the next and sooner than you think, a problem as small as a mistyped text message turns into the end of your marriage.
When you’re dealing with anxiety, it’s easy to jump to the worst conclusions, but those predictions borne of stress rarely come to fruition. It’s not always possible to make your mind stop, but you can intervene in your brain’s processing by practicing mindfulness meditation.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation, sometimes simply called mindfulness, is the practice of focusing your thoughts on the here and now instead of those “what if’s” and “what happens next” thoughts. The goal is to focus on your body and the world around you by merely observing it – without judging it as good or bad or trying to change it in any way.
While scientists and health care professionals aren’t 100 percent sure why mindfulness works, research from 2013 gives us a preliminary idea of what happens in our brains when we practice mindfulness. Researchers at the
Wake Forest Medical Center discovered that mindfulness works on two separate brain regions: the anterior cingulate cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
The anterior cingulate cortex is the area of the brain responsible for thinking and feeling. When we meditate, activity in this area decreases. We’re able to put a dimmer switch on our emotions and stop over-thinking, even if for only short periods.
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is the area responsible for controlling worrying. It stops us from thinking we’re going to die of cancer or respiratory failure when we have a simple cold (no matter what our frantic, late night Internet searching tells us). Practicing mindfulness, this area of the brain is better able to control our fears – irrational or not.
How to Practice Mindfulness
Like any learned skill, mindfulness is not mastered overnight. The more you practice it, the better you become at using it when you need to.
Start practicing mindfulness meditation when you aren’t in a social situation that’s got even the slightest potential to cause agitation.
Consider trying it while doing mundane household chores. For example, if you’re washing the dishes, you focus on the act itself, taking note of how you’re standing, how you hold and scrub each dish or cup, the sound of the running tap water, the smell of the dish detergent and the motion of putting each dish in the drainer. Don’t try to change or control any action or sensation – just notice what you’re doing and focus on it.
You don’t have to maintain an internal monologue when you practice mindfulness – and there’s no pressure to keep it going. Just try to keep yourself calm and observant of what you’re doing.
Using Meditation During an Anxiety Attack
Your health care professional has probably already informed you that you cannot control others or the world around you – that you’re only responsible for your own actions and reactions to what life throws at you. At its very core, this is what meditation is about: giving you the tools to let go of all the stuff other people say and do, the stuff you can’t control and the tools and ability to focus on the things you can control.
When you feel an anxiety attack coming on, focus on your breathing. Feel yourself breathing in and out. Don’t try to change it, don’t criticize or berate yourself for breathing too quickly or too shallowly. Just notice how you’re breathing. Being mindful of your breaths will often slow them naturally.
Choose something in your immediate area to focus on; slowly examine each of the item’s features. If you choose a tree, take note of the movement of the leaves, how the sun slides through the branches or how many shades of green you can see.
Don’t judge, don’t zone out. You want to be in the moment. Keep yourself present and observant. Eventually you’ll get through the anxiety and you can get back to feeling okay.
Mindfulness is Just One Tool
Meditation is a powerful tool for giving you back control of your body, your thoughts and your wits, but it’s just one of many tools available for dealing with social anxiety. And remember – what may work for you doesn’t necessarily work for the next person and vise-versa.
Meditation is not a substitute for regular visits to your mental health care professional; it’s not meant to replace any treatment regimen your health care provider has worked out for you. What it can do is augment therapy and any medications you take.
Speak to your health care provider about meditation and the work you’re doing with it to help manage your anxiety. If you’re having problems or can’t quite seem to master it, your doctor can help give you some pointers. Most mental health providers are familiar with basic meditation techniques and the benefits they offer and will support you trying a new, helpful coping mechanism.