Anxiety can be so crippling. It holds you back from doing the things you love and stops you from making progress in your life. But you are not completely defenseless, even if it can feel like that sometimes. Mindfulness exercises can help a lot in dealing with anxiety and reducing symptoms.
If you are really anxious to see the 7 exercises (pun intended), skip the theoretical part and go there right away!
What is mindfulness for anxiety?
The idea behind mindfulness for anxiety is to use various mindfulness techniques to help you deal with it. Mindfulness can help us be more present, more open to experiences and experience more peace of mind.
All of these effects will be extremely helpful to someone suffering from anxiety.
Does mindfulness help anxiety?
Anxiety is a complex topic. The idea of just “being present” to improve anxiety symptoms might sound laughable to you. This will be especially true if you have been dealing with severe anxiety for a while.
And you are partly right. Mindfulness does not work like a pill that you take and a few minutes later your anxiety subsides. But mindfulness does help anxiety.
Studies found significant reductions in symptoms in study participants who used mindfulness techniques to cope with their anxiety.
How does mindfulness reduce anxiety?
Mindfulness helps to reduce anxiety on a very physical level.
First of all, when you practice mindfulness for a longer period of time, your amygdala shrinks. In case you are not familiar with it, the amygdala is your brains “stress center”. It is a very primal part of you, and not very logical. It is also responsible for making you feel stressed and anxious.
Another thing that mindfulness exercises do is to activate certain parts of your brain that control worrying. So by using various mindfulness techniques, your brain basically learns how to regulate your emotions better.
This might sound super technical. If you want a more descriptive answer: You could say that through mindfulness, your anxiety gets less. And what is left simply won’t bother you as much anymore.
How can I be mindful with anxiety?
Now you might think “Great, thanks. But how the heck am I going to be mindful during my panic attack?!”
Chances are that, at the beginning of your mindfulness training, you won’t manage to practice mindfulness actively during a panic attack. Instead, I recommend that you pick up a regular mindfulness practice, to kick off those beneficial changes to your brain.
The longer you practice, the better you will become. And the more likely that you can be mindful not only for but also with your anxiety.
Mindfulness for anxiety – exercises
All theory is gray. And mindfulness is nothing but a nice concept without the practice of it. So here is a list of mindfulness exercises for anxiety!
1. Mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation is probably the best-known mindfulness exercise and with good reason! It is super easy to do and has unbelievable benefits, not only for anxiety-sufferers.
To do it, simply sit down and start with focusing on your breath. Then expand your awareness to other things you can notice. What do you feel? Do you hear something? What does it sound like? The trick is to simply observe what you can notice, without judging it.
Ideally, you do this exercise for a few minutes every day. Don’t worry about doing it perfectly, just keep at it.
2. The Five senses exercise
This exercise is perfect for when you start noticing anxious feelings. Anxiety usually comes with a boatload full of wild-racing thoughts. And with the five senses exercises, you can change your focus from your thoughts to your senses.
Start by enumerating five things you can see. Then notice four things you feel, like what you are sitting or standing on. Or how your clothes touch your skin. Then become aware of three things you can hear, two things you smell and one thing you can taste.
Simply by doing this, you might just manage to prevent or lessen an anxiety attack.
3. Observe your feelings
Observing your feelings might sound like a joke to you. After all, having anxiety feels like being a complete victim to your feelings already, right?
But this mindfulness exercise works in a different way than you might think. Instead of focusing on the fear and anxiety and trying to fight it, you take the perspective of a scientist. Observe how the anxiety presents itself in your body. Does your breath get flat, maybe? Or do you feel a tightening in your chest? What does your heart do? And your stomach?
What this does is to change your brain activity from the “amygdala party” to your prefrontal cortex. That’s the one that can describe, take rational decisions and control emotional responses.
For me, this works so well, that my husband has started to simply ask me “How does this feel in your body right now?” when he notices that my amygdala might be at work a little too much. And while I honestly sometimes almost get annoyed by the interruption, it certainly does work.
4. Interrupt your routine with STOP
I already said it above, and I have to repeat it again because it is so important: Mindfulness is not a quick fix for anxiety. It takes time and repeated practice to make changes to your life.
In order to integrate mindfulness exercises into your daily routine, you can set yourself up for tiny little “mindfulness interruptions” throughout your day. Put some type of reminder, for example, a post-it, on your mirror, in your wallet or in the fridge. (Stress-snackers, I see you!)
Whenever you stumble onto one of your little reminders, take a minute to stop. Take a few deep breaths and go through all of your senses, noticing without judgment. Then go back to what you were doing.
This is also known as the STOP practice, short for “Stop, Take a breath, Observe, Proceed”.
By making mindfulness a regular part of your day, you will notice more and more awareness even without those reminders. That is the feeling of your brain changing. Awesome, right?
5. Focus on the other people
I call this the “outward focus exercise”. And yes, I just made that name up. This mindfulness exercise is super helpful for social anxiety, especially in bigger groups.
Instead of thinking about all the things that could go wrong or what other people might think of you right now, become aware of these other people in a different, mindful way. Notice what they are wearing. The pitches of their voices. How many people look at the table or wall, or whatever is around.
If looking at people directly is too stressful, count how many different colors are in the room. Or feel the temperature. Be mindful of what is around you.
Related: 10 exercises to be more social
6. Use mindfulness objects
Don’t worry, this is not the latest fad where you need to buy some specific objects to do mindfulness exercises for anxiety. What I mean by mindfulness objects is to simply make objects the center of your mindfulness.
Find any object you can comfortably hold in your hands and focus fully on its look, feel, texture, patterns and whatever else you can notice about it.
This exercise is perfect for building up your mindfulness muscles, but can also help in moments of anxiety building up.
7. Become aware of your triggers
Now that you hopefully made good use of all the other exercises, you’ve probably become better and better at being mindful throughout your day.
The next step is to use this heightened awareness to notice when something triggers your anxiety. Watch yourself, and notice if there are any recurring patterns. Maybe it’s always certain situations? Certain people? Maybe it’s more of a biorhythm thing and you always become anxious shortly before lunch? (Don’t laugh, low blood sugar can definitely cause feelings of anxiety!)
Use your newfound knowledge to work on these triggers.
Have you used mindfulness exercises to deal with your anxiety?
I would love to hear your experiences in the comments. And if these tips were helpful to you, consider sharing them with someone!