It is hard to believe that something so beautiful in its simplicity could be so powerful, but that’s exactly what mindfulness is, and now science can’t stop talking about it. Mindfulness is an ancient art and up until relatively recently, it has managed to escape the research spotlight. That’s probably not too surprising – The research is growing like crazy and though there’s still a lot we don’t know, one of the things we do know is that mindfulness has a profound capacity to heal and strengthen the brain against anxiety.
Research that analysed 19 separate mindfulness/anxiety studies found that mindfulness was ‘associated with robust and substantial reductions in symptoms of anxiety.’ In fact, mindfulness was found to be as effective for anxiety as cognitive behaviour therapy – one of the most popular treatments for anxiety.
Mindfulness – What is it? And do I need, you know, hippie pants?
Though it was once the domain of Buddhist monks and the enlightened, mindfulness has now well and truly entered the mainstream. Mindfulness is about being fully engaged with the present moment. It involves reconnecting with your immediate experience – the sensations in your body, the sounds, smells, sights, tastes and feel of the world around you. It can be as simple as noticing the ground beneath you when you walk or the feel of the water against your skin when you shower.
Try this. As you read this, slow down and really experience where you are. Feel your clothes against your skin. Tune in to feel of the fabric as it rests upon you – soft, heavy, scratchy, warm. As you do this, notice any thoughts and feelings that come to you but watch them as an observer. Surrender the need to understand them or analyse them. Just see them for what they are – a thought or a feeling. Let them come, and then let them go.
There you go. You have just practiced the remarkable art of mindfulness. Doing this regularly will bring measurable changes in your mood, your mind and your body. If it could, your mind would smother you with kisses for the good you would be doing.
How does mindfulness work in overcoming anxiety?
1. Mindfulness changes the brain.
Anxiety happens because the amygdala, a part of the brain that is there to keep you safe by noticing and responding to danger, gets a little overzealous in hitting the panic button. When the amygdala senses trouble, it immediately surges your body with fuel (oxygen, hormones and adrenalin) to give your body what it needs to run from the danger or fight it. The amygdala doesn’t care if the danger is real or not – it just wants to keep you safe. This is called the fight or flight response. It’s hardwired in all of us and it’s what has kept us alive for thousands of years. Sometimes though, the amygdala thinks there’s a threat and fuels you up even though there’s no danger. Without the need to run or fight, the fuel builds up and that’s the reason you feel like you do when you have anxiety.
An anxious brain has a powerful amygdala. Because it fires up often, the connections are strong, making it more sensitive to threat and quicker to fire in the future … but … there’s something pretty brilliant that we’ve only come to know in the last decade or so: Throughout our entire lives, we can nurture the nature and change our brain. Practicing mindfulness has been proven as powerful way to do this. Mindfulness has repeatedly been found to change the structure and function of the brain, particularly an anxious one. Here’s how:
♦ Increase in the density of the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for calming down our instinctive emotional responses (such as fear). This finding was based on an average of 27 minutes of mindfulness a day for eight weeks.
♦ Decrease in the size of the amygdala – the centre of the brain’s fight or flight response and a key player in anxiety. A smaller amygdala means a less anxious brain – one that’s less likely to sense danger that isn’t there and initiate a fight or flight response that isn’t needed.
♦ Stronger connectivity between the reactive amygdala (‘dammit we’re in trouble’) and the rational, calming pre-frontal cortex (‘nah, we’re okay – nothing to worry about here’). When this connection is strong, the prefrontal cortex can be called on to calm down the amygdala. Both parts of the brain are important but for a healthy response, they need to work together. Teamwork. Beautiful.
♦ Increase in levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) which is one of the brain’s important neurotransmitters. GABA is there to handbrake activity in the brain when it gets too busy up there. It’s the brain’s calm down chemical. Low GABA is associated with a number of problems, including anxiety disorder and panic attacks. Mindfulness increases GABA, which is also the way some anti-anxiety drugs ease anxiety.
♦ Decrease in cortisol (the stress hormone) which is intimately involved with anxiety.
♦ Activation of the relaxation response (first discovered by Harvard cardiologist Dr Herbert Benson), which reverses the fight or flight response. It’s hardwired in all of us which means that once it’s activated, the body can’t help but relax. Deep strong breathing also activates the relaxation response. Regular mindfulness will strengthen the neural connections that activate the relaxation response, which means that it will be easier to activate (through strong, slow breathing) when it’s needed.
2. Provides an anchor for an anxious brain.
An anxious brain spends a lot of time in the future preparing for the ‘what ifs’. Mindfulness trains and strengthens the brain to stay in the moment. Of course, there will always be times when it is important to think about the future or the past and mindfulness doesn’t interrupt this. What it does do, is give you back control over when to be influenced by what-ifs and when to let go. Even though anxiety feels very much in the present – and it is – it’s driven by memories of past events or thoughts that are anchored in the future.
3. Stops anxiety clamouring for your attention.
Anxious thoughts are stubborn thoughts. The more you tell them to be nice, the more they’ll worry you. Fighting anxiety when you’re in the thick of it is like thrashing around in a current. It makes things worse. Anxiety is a fight or flight response, remember, so the more you fight your anxious thoughts, the more your brain will fuel you up for the fight. Positive thinking might last a little while, but it’s generally only until your anxious mind decides that enough is enough and that positivity is for the ponies because ‘there’s real shit to deal with here – and it’s big, so you’d better get ready to move.’
Mindfulness stops the fight. It strengthens your mind to observe your thoughts and feelings without fighting them or changing them. With a regular practice of mindfulness, the brain learns that it’s okay to let thoughts and feelings come and go. Again, there will be times when you want to hang on to a thought or a feeling as long as possible and mindfulness won’t stop this. Instead, it strengthens your mind to be more deliberate about which ones stay and which ones go.
4. Turns off auto-pilot and lets you act more deliberately.
Thoughts are so powerful – they create our reality and direct our part in it. The thing is, a lot of them happen automatically, like breathing. Our mood, feelings and behavior are all influenced by what we’re thinking, but we generally don’t stop to examine those thoughts or to consider whether those thoughts deserve the influence. Mindfulness helps you to step back and observe your thoughts and feelings as though you’re watching from the sidelines. When you surrender, for a short while, the need to analyse or hang on to any thought or feeling for longer than it needs to be there, you’ll realise that thoughts and feelings are just that – thoughts and feelings, not facts. They will come, and then they will go.
This doesn’t mean that you disconnect from your thoughts – not at all. What is means is that you can see them for what they are, and move gently around them. It will help you to notice the way your thoughts contribute to your anxiety. Think about your thoughts like furniture scattered around a dark room. When the lights are out, you can’t see where you’re going or what’s in your way. You’ll bump and scrape and get frustrated and confused. Being mindful is like switching on the light. The thoughts and feelings will still be there, but we will be able to navigate gently around them without being hurt by them.
Practicing the Life-Changing Art of Mindfulness.
Mindfulness is just experiencing the moment as it is. It’s where you let thoughts and feelings come, and then you let them go, without hanging on, bear hug style, to figure out what they mean. Mindfulness can take some getting used to. You’ll probably find that when you first start, your mind will wander off in all sorts of directions. This is completely normal. Your brain has been doing what it does your entire life and it’s likely to take some convincing to be still.
At its most basic.
Try for five or ten minutes at the start and work your way up to longer when you’re ready. Position yourself so that you feel supported and comfortable. When you’re ready, close your eyes and focus on your breath. Feel the air as it flows in and out of your body. When your mind wanders, which it probably will, gently come back to your breathing. Let your thoughts, feelings and sensations come and go. You don’t have to do anything with them.
Imagine your thoughts as traffic.
Easing anxiety isn’t just about getting rid of anxiety, but about not being scared by it. The more you can see it for what it is, the less power it will have to hurt you. Imagine watching your thoughts and feelings in the same way you might watch traffic on a suburban street. Watch them come, and then watch them go. You don’t need to understand the traffic and you don’t need to change it. Rather than seeing anxiety as something that’s in your way, mindfulness helps you to rethink it as something that’s along your way. When you stop fighting your mind, it will stop fighting you back.
Be mindful of your breathing.
Slow deep breathing is like a massage for your brain. It absolutely loves it. Try in for 3, hold for 1, out for 3. This will help to restore the balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen that has been knocked out by short, shallow breathing. It’s also a way to initiate the relaxation response, which reverses the fight or flight response and eases the awful physical symptoms that come with anxiety (racy heart, nausea, clamminess, tense or shaky arms and legs, flushed face … you know how it goes).
Be mindful of your other senses.
Move outside of your mind. Interrupt your anxiety by moving to outside of yourself, just a little. What do you see? What can you smell? What can you feel? Notice the ground beneath you. Or the breeze on your skin. What can you hear? Stop, listen and connect with the world around you. This will help to ground you and to direct your anxious mind to somewhere that isn’t as overwhelming for you.
Be mindful of the things that happen to you every day.
You don’t necessarily have to quarantine special time for a mindfulness practice, though it is a way to make sure you get the full effect. There will be opportunities for mindfulness dotted throughout your day. Notice how things feel – your clothes against your skin, the feel of the water against your skin in the shower, the sound of stillness, the ground beneath your feet and the sounds and smells around you as you walk. With mindfulness it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, but whatever you do, be all there.
Have a regular practice.
True, mindfulness can happen at any time but having a regular time will make it more likely that this healthy practice turns into a habit. Choose a time to be aware of the world inside you and around you. It can be on your daily walk, while you’re downing your coffee, on the way to work, when you wake up or before you go to sleep. The effect of mindfulness on the brain is not instant, but it is powerful and long lasting. The effect will come from a regular, consistent practice. Think of it more like exercise that a diet pill. Be patient and persistent and good things will happen.
Be mindful of your energy.
An anxious mind is an energised body. It has to be. The reason anxiety exists is to energise your body to get it ready to fight for your life or run for it. Be mindful of your energy and why it’s there. Channeling your energy through some sort of movement will help to burn the fuel that your brain is delivering to your body to get it stronger, faster, and more powerful. Feel the energy in your body – it will be there in your racy heart, your shaky limbs – and help it to find a way out. o for a brisk walk, a run, go up and down stairs – anything that will burn your excess energy will help to calm your anxious body and your anxious mind.
Try something new.
Jolt your mind out of its habitual way of responding to the world by doing something different. It only has to be one small thing outside of what you would ordinarily do. Try listening to different music, a different route for your daily walk or soaking in a bath instead of hurrying through the shower.
Smiling Minds. The App.
Mindfulness – there’s an app for that and it’s called Smiling Minds (here you go). It’s brilliant and it makes mindfulness super easy. There are different programs for all age groups from kids to adults. Like I said. Super-easy.
And finally …
You might find when you start that your thoughts will get more chaotic for a while. That’s okay and really normal. You will have anxious thoughts. Maybe some sad ones too. When your mind is still, your thoughts will think it’s open house. They will swirl and race around in your mind and have you following them to every possible conclusion. You might find yourself even deeper in the what-ifs – What if I’m not doing it properly? What if it doesn’t work? Oh no. I’ve got that dinner on the weekend. Shit. What if I’m overdressed. What if I’m underdressed. Did I leave the oven on? … This is going to happen. When it does, just bring yourself back to the moment and back to your breathing.
Remember, your brain is tough. It’s wilful and strong and it might take some persuading. It will take time and there will be times – probably many – that you’ll feel like you want out. Don’t. Don’t opt out. Keep doing it and it will get easier. If you’re finding it hard, it means you’re doing something different to what you usually do. That’s a good thing.
Don’t lose sight of the good that can come along the way. The process of learning mindfulness is also part of the healing and strengthening. There is no ultimate outcome that you’re aiming for. Just start, and the rest of it will take care of itself.
I think you wrote about mindfulness in a good way. Personally I loathe the new mindfulness or McMindfulness movement as I keep bumping into gurus with 5 minutes training who want me to sit in a room on a yoga mat and listen to my breathing. I work in resilience which includes mindfulness. There is nothing new about mindfulness but it has all been repackaged for a new generation. We want to be on our smart phones 24/7 and then do a 5 minute mindfulness app and feel better …. or not. I am more interested in working on how people find their own mindfulness which may be through dance or sport or nature and not sitting on a mat and being told to feel things! The self care supermarket can be quite patronising.
Great article. I checked out your website because I just received a copy of your book Hey Warrior. Great book. I will be using it as a teaching tool in my classrooms. I teach anxiety reducing techniques including mindfulness at schools in rural Alberta, Canada. I used to encourage students to try to replace negative thoughts with more positive ones but now encourage them to be more “curious” about them and then re-direct back to the breath.Seems to work well for all ages.
Thanks Jodi! I’m so pleased you like the book. Mindfulness is such a powerful way to manage anxiety and it’s great to see the research is confirming this.
Great article! I’ve been reading more about mindfulness. But, until I read your article I never fully understood it. You broke it down in such a way that makes sense. I even found myself practcing mindfulness while reading this.
Excellent article! I teach mindfulness meditation to my clients and the results are remarkable, especially when we use the more advanced techniques of meditating on the anxiety itself. This really breaks the cycle of reactive thinking that prevents anxiety from resolving itself.
The Boulder Center for Online Mindfulness Therapy
Do you know, by chance, the severity of the anxieties that this theory has been tested against? I noticed that it is noted to be as good as cognitive behaviour therapy, which is great! However, I’m curious of the ability it has to help someone whos anxiety is so bad that it completely disables them?!
This research involved 19 different studies that looked at the effectiveness of mindfulness and anxiety so there would have been all different levels of anxiety. The thing is, however severe your symptoms are, it’s very likely that mindfulness will help in some way because of the way it changes the brain. Would be worth a try!
An insightful and practical article. A great reminder of some basic techniques too. I love smiling mind and also Buddify.
Thanks for a great read
This article is great to read to the adolescents I work with that are dealing with high anxiety. Thank you!
Thanks Liz. I’m pleased it’s helpful.
Great article on the science behind Mindfulness. Knowledge is power, therefore important to understand facts about the how, why, what about engaging in a new practice. Being creatures of habit, I appreciated your mention of doing something different, perceiving thoughts differently, as traffic or whatever helps us realize that overthinking is an addiction, and monitoring the frequency of our energy. The app sounds like a wonderful resource to assist the beginnings of Mindfulness or development of the practice. Headed to the app to check it out, thanks!
Thanks very much Suzen. Hope you love the app!
Wonderful article! Perfect timing – I have just been really trying to incorporate this into my life. So hard when life goes at such a fast pace – but so important! I love how you explained the benefits – I’m sold!
Thanks Natasha! I really get that. I found mindfulness quite difficult in the beginning but once I got into a routine – no looking back.
You have thoughtfully written this as if you’d been “wearing the moccasins” of a 10 year old. When she reads this she’ll feel as if you could read her mind.
What a need you serve.
Thanks very much Pat.