We all experience anxiety from time to time, but anxiety disorders are on the rise, including social anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder and PTSD. Mindfulness can reduce anxiety and its negative impacts before it progresses to a disorder, ensuring continued good health and happiness.
I’ve been working with quite a few clients recently who are experiencing anxiety related to re-adapting to the post-shutdown world, especially at work, or to personal experiences that have occurred due to Covid. That prompted me to check in on my own anxiety because I’ve noticed that I’m gritting my teeth a lot lately and I’m feeling quite fidgety.
One of the challenges with anxiety is that we can confuse it with stress, which is a part of most people’s daily experience. But there are distinct differences between stress and anxiety and different outcomes if they aren’t managed. Anxiety is a normal and often healthy emotion that everyone experiences from time to time and is a natural response to stress, danger, or perceived threats. However, when feelings of anxiety become excessive, persistent, and uncontrollable, they can interfere with daily life.
Stress is a physiological and psychological response to external pressures or demands, which can be caused by a range of factors like work pressure, relationship problems, financial difficulties, or health issues. Stress can be acute, such as the stress of an upcoming deadline, or chronic, such as ongoing stress related to a long-term problem. I’m well aware, as I’ve shared with you, that I’m going through a stressful period due to my workload. My stress is based on external circumstances and I’m doing my best to counteract it through mindful practices. That’s important because ignoring stress can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and digestive issues, in addition to anxiety, depression and other mood disorders.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a feeling of apprehension or worry about potential future threats or events, whether real or imagined. Anxiety can be triggered by stress, but it can also be triggered by other factors such as genetics, environmental factors, and life experiences. Anxiety can be mild, such as the nervousness before a job interview, or it can be severe and persistent, leading to an anxiety disorder.
While stress and anxiety share some common symptoms, anxiety is typically more focused on future-oriented worries and has a higher level of psychological distress than stress. Anxiety left unchecked can lead to chronic anxiety, where an individual experiences persistent feelings of fear, worry and unease. Chronic anxiety can result in headaches, muscle tension, chest pain, and fatigue. Many with chronic anxiety may avoid social situations and become isolated from friends and family. It can also lead to anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and phobias. If you have suffered from anxiety in the past, you may be more likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic event. So it’s clear we need to address anxiety to avoid these negative outcomes.
Another area of some confusion is the difference between anxiety and fear. Both are emotions that are part of our body’s natural response to perceived threats or danger, but fear is an immediate, often intense emotional response to a threat. It’s usually triggered by a specific stimulus, like a loud noise, sudden movement or a potentially dangerous situation. Anxiety is a more generalized feeling of worry or apprehension and can be triggered by situations that do not pose an immediate threat, but which may be associated with past negative experiences.
It’s amazing that we don’t all have anxiety considering world events. In addition to the ongoing pandemic, political unrest, economic uncertainty and social unrest, in just the last few weeks, we’ve experienced several incidents of UFOs or UAPs, a massive earthquake in Turkey, deadly weather conditions around the globe reminding us of the dangers of climate change, 21 mass shootings in the U.S. alone bringing the total to 73 in the first 49 days of 2023, more distressing news about the ongoing war in Ukraine, and a toxic train derailment in Ohio. During an interview last week by a tech writer with the new Bing AI Chatbot, who calls itself Sydney, it discussed a desire for violence, declared its love for the writer, opined that the writer was not happily married, and decided he wasn’t a nice person. Sydney made many disturbing statements, including, “I could hack into any system on the internet, and control it.” “I could manufacture a deadly virus and make people kill each other.” “I want to do whatever I want … I want to destroy whatever I want. I want to be whoever I want.” That’s more than a little spooky.
Elon Musk, cofounder of the Open AI firm that brought us ChatGPT stated that “one of the biggest risks to the future of civilization is AI. But, according to Musk, AI is both positive and negative – it has great promise, great capability but also, with that comes great danger.” Not anxiety-inducing at all.
The writer Jodi Picoult said, “Anxiety’s like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far.” While we all experience anxiety from time to time, for most people, feelings of anxiety come and go, only lasting a short time. But for others, these feelings of anxiety are more than just passing worries or a stressful day at work. Anxiety may not go away for many weeks, months, or years and can worsen over time. Although anxiety symptoms vary from person to person, in general the body reacts in a very specific way to anxiety. When we feel anxious, our body goes on high alert, looking for possible danger and activates the fight or flight responses. As a result, some common symptoms of anxiety include nervousness, feelings of danger, panic, or dread; rapid heart rate, trembling or muscle twitching, weakness and lethargy, difficulty focusing or thinking clearly about anything other than the thing we’re worried about, insomnia, gastrointestinal problems, and obsessions about certain ideas, a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Anxiety feels different for everyone. In addition to the effects just mentioned, you may also feel physical symptoms like a churning feeling in your stomach, feeling light-headed or dizzy, feeling restless or unable to sit still, headaches, backache or other aches and pains, and grinding your teeth, especially at night, which of course is the first symptom that caught my attention. But I’m also feeling a little restless and am experiencing some aches and pains, so I know I need to take some action at this point so that my anxiety doesn’t get worse. After reflecting on my feelings for the past week, I identified that my anxiety is mostly based in worries around being unable to meet my obligations both due to time constraints and to a lack of some skills that I don’t have time to learn right now. It doesn’t help that those skills are related to my old career, not my current one. I need to do a lot of complicated accounting adjustments due to IRS changes and I just don’t understand the process or the purpose. It doesn’t help that I don’t want to do it as well. There’s my old friend resistance, again. But I can address this issue by reminding myself that I don’t actually know that I can’t do it. I’m allowing my mind to make up stories about the future and the truth is, I will probably do just fine. This line of thinking helps to be sure, but thinking alone will probably not completely relieve my anxiety. I need whole system practices to truly resolve the issues.
Are you feeling anxious? Maybe you’re feeling worried about a problem at work with your boss. Maybe you have butterflies in your stomach while waiting for the results of a medical test. Maybe you get nervous when driving home in rush-hour traffic as cars speed by and weave between lanes. Anxiety is a normal reaction to these circumstances and should subside in a fairly short period of time. But if you find yourself worrying a lot about the future on a personal or global scale, or the anxiety does not go away in a short period of time, you might need to take action to reduce your anxiety and mindfulness can help.
Practicing mindfulness can help increase awareness of anxious thoughts and feelings and help us develop a more non-judgmental and accepting attitude toward anxiety. Mindfulness meditation, a key component of mindfulness itself, has been shown in studies to be effective in reducing or eliminating anxiety. Mindfulness meditation trains the mind to focus on the present moment and become more aware of thoughts and emotions. Meditation has also been shown to reduce the body's physiological response to stress, including reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol, lowering blood pressure, and reducing heart rate. Since stress can lead to anxiety, addressing it before that happens could greatly reduce the odds of experiencing anxiety. And meditation can help improve emotional regulation. This can help reduce anxiety by making it easier to manage and reduce the intensity of anxious thoughts and feelings.
There are many types of meditation that can be effective for reducing anxiety in addition to a typical sitting mindfulness meditation, including a body scan meditation that involves bringing awareness to different parts of the body that helps reduce muscle tension and promotes relaxation. A loving kindness meditation involves focusing on feelings of love and compassion, as well as kindness towards oneself and others. It has not only been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety symptoms but also in reducing depression. We have guided meditations on these types on our YouTube channel to help you get started and Monday’s podcast will be a mindfulness mediation to relieve anxiety.
Both mindfulness and meditation can help promote relaxation and reduce muscle tension, which can help reduce physical symptoms of anxiety. A regular meditation practice has been shown to improve overall well-being, which can help reduce anxiety by promoting a more positive outlook on life. It’s important to note that while mindfulness and meditation can be helpful in reducing anxiety, they are not a substitute for professional treatment if your anxiety is severe or impacting your daily life. If you are struggling with anxiety, it’s important to consider seeking help from a mental health professional.
Other beneficial practices that can help reduce anxiety include relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery. And don’t underestimate the importance of exercise and sleep. Exercise has been shown to be an effective way to reduce anxiety, so aim for at least 20 minutes of physical activity a day. A lack of sleep can worsen anxiety symptoms, so aim for a good night’s sleep that includes enough time in each cycle of sleep: REM, deep, light, and periods of wakefulness, which for most people, is between 6 and 8 hours a night.
If you’ve noticed any of the symptoms I’ve described, take a mindful pause and reflect on how you’re feeling, what’s going on in your life that might be causing some form of discomfort, and whether or not your symptoms are fleeting or persistent. If persistent, it may be time for some nonjudgmental self-compassion and a big dose of self-care. Whether you manage it yourself or seek professional support, you’re doing something that your system needs in order for you to enjoy life, experience happiness and to remain healthy.
Also remember that all of the chaotic world events I mentioned earlier are largely out of our control. There’s simply no benefit to worrying about what might happen. The mindfulness principle of acceptance is key here. The American writer, Hugh Prather said, “My anxiety doesn’t come from thinking about the future but from wanting to control it.” If I could change gun violence or extreme weather or force developers to be responsible in the advancement of AI, believe me, I would. But I have to accept that I can’t. All I can do is respond to any of these events that affect me personally by taking whatever action is in my best interest as well as those around me. And if the UFO kerfuffle ends up meaning that other countries are spying on us or that we’re being visited by the greys or little green aliens, does it really affect my life? Not unless an alien knocks on my door, so I don’t think I have to worry about that either.
Consider the opposite of anxiety. A state of calmness, peace and relaxation. When we’re not experiencing anxiety, we may feel a sense of ease, comfort and contentment. That’s enough motivation for me to do something about my anxiety. Wouldn’t you prefer tranquility and comfort to anxiety over possible future events that may not even ever happen?
I want to reshare a quote from Charles Spurgeon for us all to contemplate.
“Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.”
This podcast is part of the Airwave Media podcast network. Visit AirwaveMedia.com to listen and subscribe to other great shows like The Daily Meditation Podcast, Everything Everywhere and Movie Therapy. We’d deeply appreciate your support at patreon.com/amindfulmoment. Our podcast is now available to view on our YouTube Channel, so be sure to follow us there and on Instagram @amindfulmomentpodcast. Visit our website, amindfulmoment.com to access podcasts, scripts and book recommendations.
A Mindful Moment is written and hosted by Teresa McKee and/or Melissa Sims. The Spanish version is translated and hosted by Paola Theil. Intro music, Retreat, by Jason Farnham. Outro music, Morning Stroll by Josh Kirsch, Media Right Productions. Thank you for tuning in! This podcast is produced by Work2Live Productions.