When suffering from anxiety, one of the most common and recommended ways to deal with it is to practice mindfulness. In this article, I am going to describe two ways, one simple and one more advanced, in which mindfulness can free us from anxiety provoking self-talk.
At times, anxiety arises for reasons that we are not aware of, which leaves us with a sense of powerlessness, “what is wrong with me?”, “why do I feel like this?” and “Why does it not go away?”. I am sure everybody suffering from anxiety has got their own set of favourite questions to ask themselves, but to what extent asking these questions really helps? Mindfulness can be a better alternative.
When we persistently ask ourselves questions, we engage a part of our brain that is mainly cognitive and task-oriented, which does not help connect with that part of the brain that is linked to feelings and emotions. Asking questions to ourselves can, therefore, be a distraction from those anxious feelings and, even if it can temporarily distract us and lower anxiety, it does not really work in the long run.
Asking ourselves questions can create heavy demands on that part of us that is feeling anxious in two ways at least:
The asking part of us can get frustrated for not getting an answer.
The part which is being asked questions might feel ashamed, frustrated or more anxious for honestly not knowing what is going on.
Once this internal interrogation is happening, chances are that we will stay busy within our internal fight instead of dealing with anxiety, but this is where mindfulness can help.
Probably the most commonly known version of mindfulness is that of paying attention to the breath or to an “anchor”. Exercising to pay attention to the anchor might seem unrelated to anxiety, except that it breaks the internal interrogation cycle. The simple exercise of paying attention to your thoughts and coming back to the present moment implies that we are giving ourselves a break from asking questions.
A more advanced version of mindfulness is to build on this break from questions and start a gentle enquiry into what is causing anxiety as if we were dealing with a baby. Imagine the part of us that is feeling anxious as a baby in tears. If you interrogate the baby, you will probably get more tears or scared silence. Instead, if you pay attention to the baby and stay patiently there, the cry might gradually disappear and you might understand what is causing the commotion.
While exercising to stay present and pay attention to an anchor like the breath can be relatively easy to learn by following meditations freely available online, creating an inner sense of safety and transform our internal interrogation into a gentle enquiry might require the input of a counsellor, who can support you with getting in touch with what is going on for you and with uncovering the real meaning of your anxiety.