Emotional Fluidity: Learning to ‘Surf’ Anxiety – Part Two

This is part two of a three-part series, “Emotional Fluidity: Learning to ‘Surf’ Anxiety.” Click here to read the rest of the series.

Surfing anxiety and using your Anxiety Umbrella are fabulous tools for avoiding the anxiety trap, and both can be even more effective if you engage in that thing called mindfulness.

Mindfulness, in its most general sense, is purposeful awareness without judgment. Those who are mindful are paying attention to their internal and external worlds: their thoughts, their emotions, their bodies, their surroundings – even the rate and depth of their breathing. They don’t classify the things as good or bad, beneficial or detrimental, fun or boring. They just note that the things exist.

While it may sound like an awful lot of stuff to keep track of, it’s not like you need to make a harried list that takes stock of every single activity within a 22-mile radius. In fact, mindfulness most easily comes when you are totally relaxed. What you purposely focus on is up to you. Whatever it is, that focus will serve to calm down your entire being and automatically make you more mindful of all the other things going on in your world. 

4 ways mindfulness helps with anxiety

Practicing mindfulness helps us learn to stop doing and to wait and observe how our minds and emotions work without getting pulled into anxious or negative habits and stories. Here are some specific ways mindfulness can help you survive – or even become fascinated with – the way anxiety works in your brains.

Mindfulness takes the “mystery” out of the anxiety process.

Mindfully going through anxiety lets us see the process in which our emotions evolve and build, then transition into something else. In 10 minutes of being mindful, we can experience a wide range of different emotions and reactions. Two people sitting next to each other in those same 10 minutes may experience totally different emotions and reactions, all of which are constantly changing.

That’s just the way the human mind functions.

If you understand how your own mind functions, especially in relation to anxiety, you can much more easily surf the anxiety wave, employ your Anxiety Umbrella and otherwise watch the anxiety build, flow, peak and ebb without falling prey to its hungry maw.

It helps us get better at what I call “Checking Our Gauges.”

Anxious people tend to think anxiety comes on very suddenly out of nowhere, like a giant blanket that’s been abruptly thrown over the sun or a yawing chasm that bursts opens during an unexpected earthquake.

That’s not how it works.

In reality, anxiety has usually been slowly building, developing and gathering power without notice until it peaks and can no longer be ignored. Think back to the number of times you may have been aware of a gentle flutter in your stomach or slight increase in your heartbeat but decided they were no big deal?

When you keep pushing those subtle feelings away, or are too busy or absorbed in something to even notice them at all, they are going to build to the point of eruption. Once they reach the eruption point, there’s no way you can ignore the subsequent blast of emotion. It’s become way too loud, painful, dark or even bloody to ignore.

The Earth sports a giant hole. And hey, what just happened to the sun?!

Becoming more mindful helps you cultivate awareness of the subtle ways your body and mind are evolving and shifting so you can get much better at checking your gauges. When you drive a car, there are lights and gauges that give you feedback about what’s going on inside the engine. The lights blink and the gauges note changes, like when your temperature level gets too high or your gas tank gets too low.

All these gauges make it possible for you to do what’s necessary to take care of the issue before it becomes a bigger problem. If you didn’t check your gauges when you drive, you wouldn’t notice a problem until the car puttered to a dead stop as it ran out of gas or until smoke started billowing out from beneath the hood.

Increased awareness through mindfulness teaches you to be aware of what your gauges are and how to check them and spot things early when you can still do something about them. Stress is often a precursor for anxiety, for example, and perhaps you’ll start to recognize physical cues of your body becoming stressed. Maybe your neck and shoulders tense up, your jaw clenches, or you start chewing your lip or tugging at a strand of hair.

You can use these cues as signs to amend your behavior or otherwise make useful adjustments. Maybe you need to stop pushing so hard, take a break from what you’re doing, or take better care of yourself in general with adequate sleep and a healthier diet. Using these cues to alleviate stress removes the stress that can often blossom into full-fledged anxiety.

Mental cues can also pop up on your gauges. Maybe you know anxiety is on its way when you hear negative thoughts start to creep into your head. Those thoughts can start feeding you the worst case scenario of any given situation. Maybe your thoughts tell you your boss is only calling you into her office to fire you. Perhaps your thoughts while driving are screaming how you’ll surely run out of gas before you get to your destination.

Once these thoughts start churning anxiety, more negativity can creep into your head. You may start to think that becoming anxious will make your face red, your palms sweaty and your voice crack.

You can take these thoughts as a sign to remind yourself that, first off, all these scenarios are only fictional thoughts from your own head. Secondly, if anxiety is already emerging in your brain, now is the time to remind yourself that anxiety doesn’t have to result in any of these things. It may result in you being uncomfortable for a bit, but you don’t have to fear it. Anxiety will change as all emotions change, and anxiety does and will pass.

It trains us not to let anxiety eat us alive.

Being mindful keeps us nonjudgmental; we look at things as they are, not as we perceive them to be. This is a major boost for once again avoiding the hungry maw of anxiety that wants to eat us alive.

Instead of being sucked into the “bad” or “terrifying” pit of anxiety, we can instead watch the ebb and flow of our thoughts and emotions in a disconnected sense. Sure, the thoughts and emotions are still connected to us because, well, they are in our heads, but you can learn to look at them objectively.

Instead of falling prey to the thought that “My boss is only calling me into her office to fire me,” you can instead switch your mind to the observation that “My thoughts are trying to tell me my boss is going to fire me.”

Instead of honestly believing the thoughts that tell you your car will run out of gas, remember you can view those thoughts without emotion. “Wow, my thoughts are trying to tell me I’m going to run out of gas when I know dang well the gas tank is perfectly full.”

Mindfulness can even help you get good enough to predict what your mind will do next. “Let’s see, since those negative thoughts didn’t work to push me into anxiety, my brain will now come up with five more negative scenarios to try and hook me in.” Watch as your brain follows it typical routine, but don’t get sucked into its traps.

Rather than being chewed up by anxiety, you will learn what an interesting, intricate and often amusing thing your thought process can be.

It helps us deal with impermanence.

Although the impermanence of anxiety can be a blessing, the impermanence of other things in life may often be seen as a curse. We get squirrely if someone takes our usual office chair or we have to switch computers. We might get downright terrified with bigger changes like a new job, a new gym or a whole new community after a move. We don’t like when pets and people die.

The only reason such things make us upset, according to Buddhist thought, is because we expect things to always remain the same. That is never the case. Nothing is permanent. Accepting that things change, whether you like it or not or want them to or not, is one of the keys to living serenely. Things are only a certain way for a moment, and mindfulness puts your focus on that moment, the here and now.

Now is the moment we should all live for, since it’s not going to stick around for long. It’s also the only moment that will ever exist for us. Now is the moment to be loving, open, understanding and kind. Now is the time to let all your woes go. Now is the moment to be free. Impermanence initiates that freedom by allowing everything to change and new opportunities to arise.

Exercise: How to practice being mindful

Meditation and mindfulness were made for each other, and even the most distracted types can take a stab at both. While you may not initially have the wherewithal to solemnly sit cross-legged chanting “Ohm” without feeling silly, you can probably sit through a short meditation session if you go about it with a few very easy techniques.

Ring a bell or signing bowl. The gentle sound of Tibetan bells and singing bowls can be soothing enough to induce instant pause and relaxation in all types of people, including those with the attention span of a flea. Sit in a comfortable area then softly ring the bell or bowl. Close your eyes and focus solely on the sound as it slowly fades. Continue to sit with your eyes closed as long as you wish. That listening period counts as meditation.

Breathe and count. Focusing on the breath is a great way to practice meditation. Here you practice deep breathing by counting silently to yourself. Close your eyes and take a deep breath that takes five seconds to inhale, then exhale for five seconds. Eventually set a timer and try the counting routine for five whole minutes. Congrats; you just completed your first meditation session!

The overall goal of meditation is to help you be mindful and make a habit out of sitting quietly and being still. Our next article offers ways to employ mindfulness in your daily lives without a formal meditation practice. Mindfully read on.

This is part two of a three-part series, “Emotional Fluidity: Learning to ‘Surf’ Anxiety.” Click here to read the rest of the series.