I often find myself struggling with anxiety. Whether I'm experiencing panic attacks or a more general feeling of unease about my circumstances, feeling worried or nervous is one of the quickest ways to send me down a negative thought spiral. Somehow all of those bad feelings and ideas seem to feed into one another, connecting together and creating a giant anxiety-monster that is almost impossible to fight.
Once, after several long months of shouldering this exhausting burden almost constantly, I decided to stop fighting and hide instead. At first, it felt wrong. I've always been taught to face my problems head-on, and ducking them, even momentarily, seemed like a cop-out. But to my own astonishment, taking a break from all of that stress turned out to be the best weapon I had.
You see, I had spent so long standing up against my anxiety that my defenses were breaking down. I was working really hard to come up with and try out different coping techniques, adjusting my internal dialogue, talking myself up, and steeling myself against those uncontrollable waves of panic. I was being worn down, piece by piece, until I barely had anything left. And that meant that hiding from those feelings brought me a kind of peace that I hadn't felt in a long time, if only for a moment.
When I realized this, I started hiding more and more often, and I got better at doing it. Each time the monster reared its giant, ugly face, I started to instinctively pull away from those nasty feelings. Then, once I was feeling calm and relaxed, I could revisit the monster with a clear head, battling it out with him on my own terms. Usually, the problems causing me so much anguish seemed much more manageable from this perspective. Over time, my anxiety lessened and I started to find my life much more bearable. By giving myself permission to worry about my problems at a later time and focus on my immediate circumstances instead, I was actually building the exact skills I needed to deal with them effectively.
Somewhere along the way, I found out that my hiding technique had a name: mindfulness. Although we often think of mindfulness in relation to meditation, they aren't exactly the same thing. Mindfulness is simply focusing on the present moment without any distractions. It's a great way to center yourself and get your head on straight as you walk into all kinds of situations, whether you're dealing with anxiety or not.
The reason I felt so much better after "hiding" from my problems was because I was unknowingly using mindfulness to rebuild my mental and emotional strength. Instead of allowing my problems to weigh me down, I would take a few minutes to check in with what was happening to me at that exact moment. I would ask myself: Am I safe? Am I comfortable? What am I looking at right now? How do I feel? What can I do immediately to improve my circumstances?
Now that I know more about mindfulness, I've realized that I get better at it with practice. And though I know from experience that it's possible to use this skill only in crisis situations, it really is better to keep this particular tool sharp so that using it is second nature. Meditation is a great way to do this, as it allows you to practice using mindfulness for longer and longer periods at a time. But even if you're not ready to start a full-scale meditation practice, there are many small ways that you can incorporate this valuable skill into your daily life. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Practicing mindfulness while driving was one of the easiest places for me to get started, probably because safe driving techniques already require you to pay close attention to the present moment. When you're on your daily commute, put both hands on the wheel and tune into what is going on around you. Turn down the radio, put down your coffee, and save your lipstick touch-up for the parking lot. What do you notice about the sounds of the road? Is there something you've never seen before on your regular route? How do your hands feel on the steering wheel?
Bathing is one of my favorite times to practice mindfulness, and I highly recommend it as a great way to start your day well. When you're in the shower, focus on the way the warm water feels on your skin. Notice the smell of your own shampoo. What is the texture of your washcloth like? Because taking a shower can already be so relaxing, practicing mindfulness at the same time feels like a double treat!
Doing the Dishes
It almost pains me to say that my least favorite chore is a prime opportunity for mindfulness practice. If you're like me, you usually shove the dishes into the dishwasher after a quick rinse and hope they get clean. But it's worth it to take an opportunity to wash them by hand, and take notice of what happens. It turns out that washing dishes is kind of like taking a bubble bath for your hands. I never would have seen the similarities between the two activities if I hadn't been fully immersed in the experience.
Walking the Dog
I'm often in a hurry to take my dog outside to do her business. I'm usually running late for work, and I get annoyed at her for stopping to sniff every. single. thing. she passes. But on the days that I make extra time to take her on a long walk, I can stop to really enjoy the experience. It feels nice to stretch my legs and feel the warm sun on my face, and I tend to notice things that I haven't seen before. Walking the dog is a great opportunity for mindful multitasking (who knew that existed?).
It's easy to get caught up in a pattern of eating lunch at your desk, hurrying through the meal without paying much attention. And though some meals are by necessity distracting, (there's breakfast, when you may be rushing or even eating on the go, and dinner, when you're more focused on your kids or your partner than the food itself) lunch is often a solitary activity when you have the opportunity to practice mindfulness. There is a fair amount of research about mindful eating and its effects on weight loss, but this practice can be valuable in and of itself. Take some time to focus on your meal without any distractions. Eating is a multi-sensory experience - pay attention to the way your food looks, smells, and tastes. Dining can be a really wonderful experience. Remember how excited you used to get when your parents told you that your favorite meal was on the menu for dinner? Bring some of that joy back into your life at lunchtime.
In a similar way, cooking can be a great time to practice mindfulness. There's a lot going on as you prepare a meal, and the best cooks know how important it is to focus on the process. It's easy to get into a state of flow as you cut veggies, season meat, and apply heat or other techniques to build a delicious meal. In addition to deepening your mindfulness skills, you'll end up with a tasty treat as a bonus.
There is a reason that so many therapists recommend gardening as a stress-reduction technique. It can be hard to slow down in our fast-paced lives, but gardening forces us to do just that. Since I live in an apartment, I created a small container garden on my patio, but a community garden is also a great choice if you prefer a more conventional set-up and don't have a yard. I love caring for my plants and watching them grow, and I find it easy to focus when I'm engaged in the process.
Painting is not something I can say I'm very talented at, but it does help me to "get in the zone." I enjoy drawing and painting flowers and landscapes, but if you're shy about wielding a brush I recommend starting with a paint-by-numbers project. Adult coloring books are another way to focus on the details and engage in a mindful experience while exercising your creativity.
Journaling is an amazing way to be mindful and help you to express the thoughts you may not be paying close attention to throughout the day. There are many ways to do this, but here is my favorite: Sit somewhere comfortable with your journal and pen at hand. Close your eyes and be still for a few minutes. Try to clear your mind, and pay attention to the thoughts you can see more clearly now. Focus on the way you feel, both physically and emotionally. When you're ready, open your eyes and make a note of your observations. Journaling has the added benefit of being a record of your mindfulness practice.
This one may seem like a no-brainer (pun intended). You're thinking all day long, but how often do you really pay attention to the things that go through your head? You may be surprised at what you discover about yourself when you start engaging more fully in the conversation happening in your mind. Why do you react to certain situations in a particular way? Do you have a tendency to make assumptions about someone in your life? How does your inner voice treat you - is it kind and reassuring, or critical and mean? Knowing the answers to these kinds of questions is an important part of any mindfulness practice. If you need a jumpstart, draw a picture of your own head, and fill it with the thoughts you have on a regular basis. What will you find out about yourself?
If you try any of these techniques, please let me know how they work for you in the comments. And if you already practice mindfulness, what tips or tricks have you tried that work for you? What other ways do you cope with anxiety and stress? Please share them with me - I can't wait to hear from you!