How to Mindfully Relate to Anxiety

woman at window with stress and anxiety

From a perspective of Buddhist psychology, our feelings themselves are never the problem. Emotions such as anxiety have no inherent value to them and yet we often label painful emotions as "bad" or "wrong". We seem to believe that emotions exist on a dichotomous spectrum, ranging from "good" = happy to "bad" = sad. Feelings, Buddhists say, are like visitors - they come and they go. The key is to learn how to relate to our feelings in a way that isn't harmful or destructive, and in doing so, find freedom from suffering.

Step 1: Use Mindfulness to Detach from the "Story" 

In order to understand what we feel, we need to apply mindfulness. We often believe that we "think" our feelings, that our feelings are a cognitive experience in our minds. By being mindful of our thoughts and feelings, we can learn to observe if we're actually feeling anxiety in our bodies (after all, feelings are physiological sensations that exist in our bodies and not our minds!) or if we're telling ourselves a story about anxiety in my mind.

Example: If I'm telling myself a story about anxiety, I'll notice that my thoughts (/inner monologue) go something like this:

"I'm so anxious right now, this job interview isn't going to go well. I'm totally unqualified and they're not going to like me, I know it...I should've prepared more. I'm going to mess up and sound like a fool, this is going to be terrible." (This line of thinking can actually create anxiety, so it's important to first understand if I can release those thoughts and therefore the anxiety or not).

If I'm actually feeling anxiety in my body, and I use mindfulness to detach from all the noise in my head, I might notice some or all of the following physical sensations:

  • heart racing

  • sweating

  • shortness of breath

  • antsy/tingling feeling in my limbs

  • dry mouth

Step 2: Say "Yes" to Whatever Arises

Once we've identified a feeling in our body (and in doing so, detached our mind's desire to judge, label and evaluate our feelings), the next step is to simply "say yes". This means accepting what we feel. We so often invalidate our own feelings by resisting them, pushing them away or wanting them to be other than what they are. This resistance, paradoxically, only serves to strengthen the emotion: as beloved American Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says, "Resistance to unwanted circumstances has the power to keep those circumstances alive and well for a very long time."

Step 3: Breathe and Stay with the Feeling

The final step is to simply stay. What does this mean? Staying with a feeling is what we practice in meditation, yoga or any other formal mindfulness technique. Whenever a distressing thought or feeling arises, we have the tendency to want to move, to get away from it, to relieve it somehow (almost like an itch we want to scratch). We have impulsive urges to reach for things that will change what we feel from something painful to something pleasurable - to take a drink, pick up the phone and call a friend, get online and surf through social media. But these quick fixes don't work long-term - a feeling is something that needs to be felt, no more, no less. 

When we return to the breath, pause and experience an emotion in our bodies, we are able to remain with that energy long enough for it to pass (which is usually FAR QUICKER than we realize!). We learn to no longer identify with what we feel or to attach to any sort of outcome, but rather, to simply allow room for that emotion to exist - as a wave in our ocean, just one of many that will surely change and pass and return countless times in our lives.