There’s nothing like extreme anxiety to make you feel like you’re falling apart. Using a few basics of mindfulness as self-help may be a way to pull yourself back together.
The all-embracing anxiety I’m talking about comes close to panic. It’s an explosion of fear that hits everything. Certain situations can set it off, or it can start like depression, suddenly there, perhaps from the first waking moment of the day.
I feel helpless, torn in every direction at once. My only thoughts are a jumble of self-accusation and blaming for not being able to do anything.
There’s no center, no me, just a scream like those grating emergency warning signals on TV or radio. Often I’m so lost in the noise that I can’t move and can only sit there feeling the pressure mount within. If I’m not so frozen, I’ll try to wear myself out physically, maybe running in place as fast I can or pounding on whatever is nearby.
But literally trying to run away from anxiety or beat it out of my system never works for long.
Learning about Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a method that can work by instilling new skills. It not only helps during an attack but also can help you prevent anxiety from getting of out control. There are several forms of psychotherapy that have carefully incorporated the practice and tested the methods in research.
I first heard about mindfulness in the context of Buddhist meditation traditions. That was inspiring, but I thought of mindfulness as a form of spiritual enlightenment that you attained only after years of meditative practice.
I didn’t see the connection to everyday life, much less to depression and the extremes of anxiety and anger that I lived with for so long. There are a great many books to learn how mindfulness can help you. The Mindful Way through Depression is especially good for learning the basic, as is A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook. But the one that brings these ideas and methods closest to home is Daniel Siegel’s Mindsight.
Siegel uses the image of a bicycle wheel to explain how mindfulness can work. The rim of the wheel is everything you might turn your mind toward – a person, a sound, a memory, anything you can experience. The spokes are the paths we follow to direct our attention to any point on the rim. At the center is the hub, the core awareness of everything singled out along the rim by those spokes of attention.
Becoming Aware of Your Awareness
When you’re extremely anxious, you tend to feel that the hub is empty, a void needing to be filled. The things you perceive come at you to fill that space, but there are so many they compete with each other, shove each other aside, and produce only the hopeless confusion of near-panic.
If you stop worrying about the hub and just look at each thing your awareness is picking up, you realize that there is a you there. You are seeing your attention and mind shift wildly, but you are aware of every minute of the experience. You have a center in the form of that awareness, but you’re using it to judge yourself.
The mindfulness techniques help you observe what you’re doing even when you’re in the midst of the torrent of panicky feelings. Part of you is feeling the craze of anxiety, perhaps feeling completely out of control.
But in order to judge yourself for being out of control and worthless when you’re in this state, you have to be aware of yourself to begin with. I think we’re always aware in this way, seeing and judging what we’re doing.
Reframing Your Response to Experience
It takes a lot of practice to reframe this awareness, to stop the judging and see what’s happening only as an experience. It is happening to you but doesn’t define who you are.
Reframing your awareness may sound simple, but it’s not simple at all, perhaps because shame and harsh self-judgment have become so deeply embedded through the combination of anxiety and depression. If you try to stop the experience because it’s painful, you’ll feel tremendous tension and more anxiety because you can’t call a halt to such a powerful experience.
If you let the anxiety unfold without judging and without trying to stop it, then you’re getting close to the power of mindfulness.
You can accept what’s happening and live through it while also observing it in the context of your larger self. It takes a lot of practice, but the practice itself in the form of simple meditations has a great relaxing influence.
Observing Yourself during an Anxiety Attack
A lot of mindfulness books talk about developing the awareness of the flow of experience, of thoughts and feelings, noting them and letting them pass on. The method has always sounded too impersonal, too detached to me, as if you became a mental presence watching everything on a movie screen without directly participating in what you see.
I’m sure that’s just my shallow interpretation, but Siegel’s approach puts the idea of observation differently. He has helped me bring it inside my life rather than approaching it like the sacrosanct goal of a spiritual practice.
You don’t step aside and watch the experience go by, as if it’s happening to someone else. You simply let it happen, immersed in its full force, but with an added awareness and sense of objectivity. Your body may be torn up with anxiety as dozens of impossible goals confront you, and you feel completely inadequate to do any of them.
The mindfulness techniques help you sharpen awareness of yourself as you’re going through the most painful and out-of-control moments. Meditation exercises train you to focus your attention in a non-judgmental manner. They direct your attention to one thing that you try to keep your mind on.
Breathing is a focus of attention for me that seems to change my outlook most directly. Perhaps that’s because I feel deep breathing throughout my torso, and that is where I react physically to powerful emotions.
Tension tightens my chest especially, and breathing becomes shallow. Back and shoulder muscles spasm. Sometimes, the feeling roils my gut to a point of nausea. Deep breaths open everything, loosen muscles, clear my head and help me settle down just a little.
I use one of the most basic meditation techniques of counting breaths at the touch of air through mouth or nose. All sorts of thoughts and feelings distract me. When I realize I’ve lost count, I start at the beginning again – over and over.
Everyone gets distracted as they try to focus and keep their minds on one thing. When the distractions occur, a depressed or anxious person feeling empty at the center will punish themselves for failing to do meditation the right way. But there is no right or wrong.
The point is not to exclude anything but to feel and think whatever comes along. Those shifts aren’t you screwing up, they’re a series of experiences you’re having. Each one ends, and you return to the focal point again and again.
Eventually, you find yourself responding to each thing on the rim of Siegel’s wheel not as defining you but as an experience – one of a cascade of them in an anxious state.
The strange thing is that accepting the experience relieves tension much more than trying to shut down the anxiety. Siegel has a good quote on this: “Letting things be allows them to change.”
He also describes research using brain scans of people who are meditating. On the level of neurobiology, the practice assists neuroplasticity or the growth of new neuron circuits in response to new mental activities.
On a psychological level, the research indicates that mindfulness develops an “approach state” rather than one of avoidance. You find yourself more frequently moving toward rather than away from challenging situations. That’s one way of defining resilience.
There are many other ways to develop mindful awareness, but a focus on breathing is the one I’ve learned to summon up no matter what’s happening. It works a lot better than trying to run off the useless energy of anxiety.
Have you learned much about mindfulness or developed the skills as part of psychotherapy? Has it helped you deal with anxiety or depression?
A week ago, I listened to a podcast featuring a popular self-help guru. Her advice is usually too “new-agey” for me and I think she’s often way off base. But I have read her articles for several years, and very often in the middle of the mess, I find a nugget of truth. Something that hits home and makes such sense to me that I incorporate it into my thinking. A week ago, she said “breathe IN all that is in the world around you, and breathe OUT acceptance of all that is in that world.”
I have found that this simple concept has helped so much when I feel overwhelmed by anxiety. Because I take it all in instead of fighting against it, and I accept it for what it is. I take in the triggers, the flashbacks, the unpleasant sensations attached to memories. But I don’t start trying to sort it all out and trying to construct some sort of defense against it. Fighting it has been my habit in the past, and that doesn’t work. I have also tried dismissing everything from my mind, going totally blank. But that is dangerous for me because it is hard to find my way back out of the blankness. So now, I take in all that is there — whatever I am seeing in nature, whatever my emotions are at the moment, whatever thoughts are churning in my brain, and the fact that my intellect wants to pin down and label it neatly and put it away — and then I accept it all.
I have sought contentment for a long, long time. But I thought I could only achieve contentment when all the problems were solved, including the problems of depression and anxiety. The more apparent it became that the problems would never be solved, the more depression and anxiety welled up. And the worse I felt about myself for not being smart enough to solve them.
But in this breathing everything in and breathing it all out in acknowledgement of acceptance, I am finding a “settled” sensation I have not known before. I am not responsible for all the problems or all the solutions, I just accept they are there along with everything else. And when I do this things seem to fall into place. Amen and amen. I will work with this in mind for a while and see how it goes.
John, thank you for this wonderful article. As my father nears transition, I find myself having difficulty sleeping due to panic attacks. I will use your suggestions tonight…
Dear John: I took two weeks from work: working out, seeing a therapist, writing a little, resting, figuring things out. Most importantly, I am trying to carve my road to recovery, one step at a time. Writing down my feelings, the reasons for my pain and sadness, worked well today. For example, my husband told me that he would prefer for my depression to be caused by a physical ailment and not by emotional stuff that could go on and on and onto perpetuity. He doesn’t get the emotinal stuff. I clamped up and just recoiled in pain when he uttered those words. I felt like crying but I didn’t. I felt much better after expressing my fears and sadness on the page; I didn’t even get angry as I often do. Writing and then reading my words helped me to make sense of the moment and almost gain a bit of control of my emotions. The key was writing soon after the interaction happened. The act of writing felt as though I was having an objective conversation with myself and really searching within for the reasons that cause me to be so vulnerable to the opinions of others and the reasons I can’t tolerate or endure rejection and coldness without falling apart emotionally. The written conversation with myself worked today and it has in the past. I just had forgotten about this wonderful skill.