Why is mindfulness so often recommended to help manage anxiety?

While there are many ways anxiety can show up, including physical symptoms (stomach aches, insomnia, nausea, sweating, etc.) a key element to anxiety is frequently what we call racing thoughts. This is when your mind is moving too quickly for you to keep up, often latching onto details out of our control and catastrophizing. In this spiral of anxious thoughts, we get pulled out of the present moment and our minds get forced into a game of “what if” that we can never win. That’s why mindfulness is often recommended to folks with anxiety.

Now, it’s not uncommon for folks with mental illness to receive unhelpful advice from folks who have not experienced the severity of their condition, or lived with how it actually feels to have that mental illness everyday. So if you read “mindfulness can help with anxiety” and felt the need to roll your eyes–we understand.

We aren’t suggesting that mindfulness is a “cure” for anxiety or that practicing mindfulness will eliminate the need for long term treatments like medication or regular therapy. What it does do is help to slow your thoughts and keep you grounded in the present moment. This can help to reduce occurrence of overwhelming anxiety, and can also help function as a coping skill to utilize when those moments do come up.

So, what is mindfulness?

The core idea of mindfulness is to get you focused on the present moment–which is why it’s so effective in managing anxiety! There’s often a misunderstanding that mindfulness is just about being alone in your head, but that’s not what mindfulness is about–and it’s also probably why the suggestion is so unappealing to folks trying to manage anxiety! If the racing thoughts are what you are seeking relief from, why would you go right to the source and give it free reign?

But mindfulness is not about being alone with your thoughts. The keys to mindfulness are awareness and acceptance.  Awareness means to take intentional notice of both your environment and your own inner world. Be present and aware, but grounded in the moment you’re in.

And the element of acceptance means that when you’re practicing mindfulness, you’re practicing leaving your judgements at the door. When thoughts and feelings come up, notice them, and consider what they’re telling you, but shut down any judgement you have of them.

Because anxiety is so often taking us out of the present moment, and trying to force our brains to fixate on things we can’t see, feel, touch, or control in anyway, mindfulness helps to allow us to release those anxious thoughts instead of following them down the rabbit hole, and refocus on our present moment.

How can you practice mindfulness?

If you’ve never tried mindfulness before, there are lots of simple quick ways to dip your toe in and start practicing!

Five minute mindfulness:

Five minute mindfulness is a practice we’ve written about before, where you take small moments throughout your day and commit to the practice of mindfulness within them, just for a few minutes. Some examples we give are things like brushing your teeth, commuting to work, washing your dishes, checking your mail, feeding a pet, etc. All things you would regularly do, so you don’t have to find any extra time in your day!

Grounding exercises:

Have you heard of grounding exercises as soothing mechanisms for anxiety? That’s because they’re all about mindfulness and centering yourself in the present moment. Grounding exercises are an incredibly useful mindfulness practice for those suffering from anxiety. Mindful grounding exercises can include things like box breathing, engaging the five senses, progressive muscle relaxation, etc.

Go for a walk unplugged:

Don’t take headphones to listen to music and leave your phone at home! Just walk around your block and try to keep your mind focused just on your walk. Try to engage all of your senses as you walk, and ask yourself questions like:

  • What are you smelling?
  • What can you hear?
  • What can you see? The colors, the landmarks, the flora, the people, etc.

Use an app or online guided meditation:

There are LOTS of meditation apps out there. And if you don’t like any of those, there are plenty of other places online to find guided meditations. For free, you can even find them on youtube! These options are a great way to practice mindfulness without putting the pressure on yourself to figure it out on your own. You can use guided meditations if you want to be instructed a bit more, until you’re comfortable enough to guide your own practice!

Remember, the most important thing is to keep trying until you find a way that works for you. The more you try, the easier it will be to slip into a mindful state.  If you’re looking for ways to practice mindfulness that are specific to you, our counselors can help you develop your own mindfulness practice.