Treating Anxiety through Mindfulness Exercises

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a technique increasingly used and whose origin goes back to Buddhist traditions with more than 2500 years old. This Westernized technique comes from Buddhist monks in their meditation and spirituality work.

However, although the origin of mindfulness comes from Buddhist practices, nowadays it is totally detached from any religion to focus on concrete and practical objectives that essentially help to improve the quality of life of the people who practice it. In addition, it is a technique that in the last decade is scientifically demonstrating empirical validity in a wide range of psychological disorders, so it is not surprising that it is a booming technique.

How do mindfulness exercises treat anxiety and are they effective? Why choose mindfulness to reduce anxiety?

Mindfulness is a technique that falls within the third generation techniques, these techniques are basically focused on the context. Mindfulness is proving to be effective in treating anxiety and anxiety-related disorders when applied in conjunction with other third-generation behavioral techniques such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Functional Analytic Psychotherapy (FAP) among others.

To better understand the effectiveness of mindfulness in relation to anxiety, one must understand what an anxiety problem is. This can be defined as excessive worry about a real or imagined fear that we believe will occur. This irrational worry or fear can be caused by both internal and external stimuli that cause the body to go on “alert”.

In most of the occasions the sequential chain that takes place is:

  1. Internal stimulus (automatic thought, mental image, nightmare, etc.) or external stimulus (a place, person, a situation we must face, etc.).
  2. Cognitive response: irrational thought of danger (we interpret the previous situation as a threat and we have thoughts related to that fear or worry in a disproportionate way).
  3. Emotion congruent with the thought (fear, etc.).
  4. Physiological responses of anxiety (sweating, increased heart rate, increased respiration, trembling, etc.)
  5. Motor behaviors and consequences (e.g., escape from that situation or avoidance by not facing it. Reinforcing therefore the avoidance of those situations).
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When we feel anxious, our natural response is to prepare to fight or flee. Anxiety is therefore not bad, it is necessary for our survival, the problem lies when anxiety is excessive and disproportionate to the situation. When it is an excessive and disproportionate anxiety we tend to avoid, however, this avoidance in order not to “suffer” reinforces that anxiety continues to exist since it is being interpreted as “useful and functional” although maladaptive. That is, we mistakenly believe that we are protecting ourselves from those situations that, although they have not occurred, we “anticipate” that they pose a danger and we act “avoiding” them.

In this way, avoiding situations that we are interpreting as overflowing or fleeing from them, just to feel bad, we are unknowingly increasing our anxiety both to that situation and to other similar situations that may occur in the future.

On the other hand, mindfulness focuses on living in the here and now, in full awareness of what is being lived and felt at that moment and accepting it without judgment. Therefore, when mindfulness practices are performed, the ability to consciously enjoy what is happening and to accept what we feel is acquired and improved.

With the practice of mindfulness we would change the above sequence described before a situation that generates irrational anxiety, and instead of running away from the place and what we are feeling (e.g., anxiety symptoms such as increased heart rate, hyperventilation, sweating, etc. ….), we would stay in that anxiogenic situation allowing us to feel bad. Accept these physiological sensations, use conscious breathing techniques and wait for the anxiety to disappear. It is important to understand that anxiety, although unpleasant, is not dangerous, it is generated by our mind and body to protect us.

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Initially in the first occasions we will feel anxiety without avoidance or flight and in a short time when we remain in the situations that we avoided the anxiety by itself will disappear. This anxiety by itself will lose its function since we will demonstrate that the danger or threat does not occur, the previous sequence described above will change by itself: since what we feared does not occur, it will not make sense to produce anxiety in those future situations and we will not have irrational thoughts. For some time now, both my fellow psychologists at PsicoAlmería and I have been successfully addressing anxiety with mindfulness and third generation techniques in our psychological therapies.

What kind of mindfulness exercises are carried out?

There are many types of mindfulness exercises, the objective of these is to live in the present with full attention, with what is happening at that moment and allow that, although our mind wanders or has thoughts about the past or future, we can consciously bring our attention back to what we are doing. They are therefore aimed at not being in “autopilot” mode and paying more attention to what we are living and doing.

Among the exercises we find conscious breathing, body scanning and mindful eating, helping in this practice to unlearn emotional eating (eating for example driven by emotions such as boredom or anxiety). In the PsicoAlmeria center we perform all types of Mindfulness exercises and in the following link available videos and audios to get started or practice mindfulness.

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How can we incorporate mindfulness into our daily routine?

We can incorporate mindfulness into our routine by doing both formal and informal practices. In formal practices we can use audios or videos with different mindfulness exercises or attend face-to-face mindfulness sessions. We could start with audios or videos of about 15 minutes daily.

And informal practices consist of committing ourselves to be aware and attentive to what we do during activities that are rewarding, for example: enjoying a bath or shower focusing on the temperature of the water, on how the drops slide down our skin and on our emotions and internal sensations of that moment (avoiding thinking about what we have to do next or worries).

By enjoying those moments with mindfulness we will achieve greater emotional well-being, because throughout the day if we are with stress or anxiety we do not give ourselves the opportunity to enjoy those moments and rewarding activities without having the mind busy with other things.

For more information, consult with a specialist in Psychology.