I discuss how we can use mindfulness for anxiety relief. When stress gets to be too much, we can use mindfulness meditation to help with stress, anxiety, and even depression.
While this is not a guided mindfulness meditation, it is a primer, with tips for how to develop your own mindfulness practice. I discuss how anxiety shows up in our bodies, our thoughts, and our emotions, and explain how mindfulness improves anxiety symptoms in each area.
I also offer practical suggestions for learning to meditate, even if you think you have too much of a busy brain! While it can feel that way, I promise you don’t. I explain how the goal is not to empty the mind, but to learn how to choose where we place our attention.
Chris Neal, LPC
Chris provides counseling in Oklahoma City, OK. With a practice focus on adults, he works with individuals and couples on a range of concerns.
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Hi and welcome to this week’s show. Have you heard about mindfulness and wondered what it was all about? Have you wondered if it might be able to help you with your anxiety or your depression. The answer is a resounding… Yes, it absolutely potentially can. And in this video we’re going to talk about what mindfulness is and how you can maybe get started with some kind of practice yourself. Now this is not a how to it’s not a guided meditation. There are plenty of those out there. And in fact I want to direct you to my web site at ChrisNeal.com. I have a free guided mindfulness meditation. It’s only five minutes long. You can put it on your mobile device and use it anytime that is safe and appropriate to do so. So ChrisNeal.com is a great place to get your free guided meditation.
Now if you are returning to the show. Welcome back. I’m really happy to have you back with me. If you’re new here then welcome I’m glad you found the show. I want to ask you please to do something for me I want to do please in the comments below. Let me know how you found me. Was it through search? Was it recommended to you? How did you find the Resilient Self? And also please remember to subscribe click the subscribe button and in YouTube, don’t forget to click the little bell. That way we get into your reminders in your feed. That way you know whenever a new episode comes up.
So when I talk about mindfulness with people I usually get a couple of specific reactions. One is from practitioners of mindfulness who give me a knowing nod and a smile like, “Yes this is awesome it helps me a lot and I love it.” Now that can look a lot of different ways. Saying mindfulness is in its own way kind of like saying barbecue. It can mean something entirely different to different people depending on your circumstance and your attitude. So mindfulness could simply mean mindful breathing exercises. It could be full blown meditation practice. It could mean prayer. It could mean yoga. You will find what version of mindfulness works for you just through experimentation.
The umbrella of mindfulness is basically a contemplative practice to help you be present with yourself to be authentic in the here and now. And when we can learn to focus our attention on what’s truly present for us what’s going on in the here and now and view that accurately and clearly then we can clear out a lot of the other muck that tends to show up in our lives.
And so one of the other responses I get from people who haven’t tried mindfulness or maybe have just dabbled is they’ll say either “Yeah I just don’t see how sitting there quietly can really do anything for me…” We’re going to talk about that. Or what I hear probably most often is people say “Well I can’t really quiet my mind I just don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to get started. I Feel stupid when I try and I just feel like I’m kind of sitting there staring at the wall or sitting there with my eyes closed and I don’t really know what to do. And so I just don’t find it very useful because I don’t even know what I’m doing.”
And we’re going to address that today as well. Like I said it’s not a how to in terms of being a guided meditation but there are some things that will definitely set you on your way if you want to explore mindfulness in whatever form.
Now we’re talking about it in terms of anxiety which I think is one of the best reasons to engage in mindfulness as it can help us overcome anxiety and we live in an anxious world where we’re inundated with information and messages and demands from the world and mindfulness can help us deal with that in ways that don’t wear us down. OK? So anxiety shows up really in one of three ways it can show up in the physical realm it can show up in the cognitive realm and it can show up in the emotional realm. We can get all three or any combination of the three.
So let’s talk about mindfulness in relation to the physical manifestations of anxiety. A lot of times we’ll get sick to our stomach. We can get jittery or just can’t calm down or a lot of times we’ll get pain somewhere in the body tension headaches. A lot of us just feel tightness through here into the neck into the jaw. Those are all perfect examples of how anxiety can show up in our bodies. Mindfulness and mindful meditation can be a tremendous help when it comes to calming our bodies.
Think of it in terms of your baseline anxiety level we call it trait anxiety. Or I’ll kind of use “arousal state” in kind of interchangeably with that in this conversation. So we all have a baseline anxiety level kind of our idling speed that we walk around with. And that’s related directly to how we respond to individual stressors. Think about your trait anxiety level as a trampoline and the tighter that’s pulled the higher your arousal level or your baseline anxiety level your trade anxiety then the higher things are going to bounce when they hit that trampoline. Similarly when you have high trait anxiety and something happens you’re gonna tend to respond more… I don’t know if aggressively is the word you’re going to be more reactive to that.
And so the more we can lower trade anxiety lower arousal then the more we can deal with those things that just come along throughout our day. Starts with the physical. So when we engage in mindful breathing that starts with learning how to breathe breathing down into the belly. A lot of times when I’m starting with people I’ll say okay let’s just start by having you take a deep breath for me and they go [inhales] and… Wow that even hurt to demonstrate and so, and so what they do is they scrunch the shoulders and they think they’re breathing into the lungs and they create all kinds of tension all up in this area. And frankly they don’t even really take that deep of breath because we’re not using the lungs very efficiently.
So the first thing we learn to do is allow the diaphragm to descend the belly expands. That’s why we call it a belly breath and we breathe deeper into the torso. When we breathe deeper into the torso. We become much more efficient. We bring more air in more air out. It has more of a calming effect on the body. Also when we slow that breath down to about six breaths per minute is a good average. Some people it’s a little higher some a little lower. Now we don’t breathe six rest for a minute when we’re walking throughout our day. But when we’re doing mindful breathing if we can get to that that’s press per minute… Five counts in five counts out then we promote something called heart rate variability.
You may know this but your heart rate is not supposed to be completely metronomic. It supposed to speed up when you breathe in. It’s supposed to slow down when you breathe out an increased heart rate variability correlates with improved physical and emotional health. So an Olympic swimmer who has really great relationships and great boundaries probably has heart rate variability HRV that’s really high. People who have really low physical and psychological health probably don’t have very high HRV.
The good news is that we can reverse engineer that and by teaching our bodies to increase the variability of our heart rate then we can calm the system and we can have improved physical and psychological health and the way we do that is through belly breathing. We breathe in slowly we exhale slowly and that helps the body and the brain learn to talk to each other more effectively.
It helps us balance the two parts of our autonomic nervous system the sympathetic nervous system which doesn’t feel very sympathetic because that’s the fight or flight and the parasympathetic nervous system which is the part that calms us down. And so what mindfulness meditation what mindful breathing does is it helps increase variability in the heart rate which just makes you more healthy in general and it helps your your body move into an appropriate arousal state for the task at hand.
So if you’re sitting on the porch at home with your family hanging out at the end of the day. Well we hope that’s a calm low arousal situation. If you are driving on a busy interstate and there’s semis going past you and it’s just really dangerous you need to be in fight or flight you need to have that high alert to be aware of everything that’s going on around you. And so when we can increase our heart rate variability through mindful breathing then we put our brain and our body into a state where it can adjust on the fly and get us into the arousal state that’s going to help us manage the situation.
Now let’s talk about cognitive anxiety. We get that spinning of the mind we just can’t calm down we can’t focus. We have intrusive thoughts and it can be really frustrating and a lot of people think they’re really good at multitasking. The truth is none of us are really very good at multitasking. It’s not really how we’re designed we are not at our best when we’re trying to do nine things at once.
So one of the goals through mindfulness meditation is to learn how to focus our energies in a particular area. I don’t know about you but sometimes when I’m trying to focus on too many things I actually feel almost kind of helpless like I can’t really do anything well. And it can really be hard just on your sense of self. And so when we learn to focus then we learn to maximize our effort focus our energies and do this thing well and then move on to the next. It also helps us shut out the noise.
How does mindfulness meditation help with this? Well what we do is while we’re doing our breathing we also become aware of what our thought processes are. We focus our energy entirely on the breath and to help ourselves, we can even say “I’m breathing in” on the in-breath and “I’m breathing out” on the out-breath. Now if we’re trying to go five seconds in five seconds out we might even count along with that “I’m breathing in two three four five. I’m breathing out two three four” and so on. And when we focus our energy on that breath and we feel that breath come in as we’re thinking about it what happens is we begin to focus in and the rest of the world all those other plates we’re trying to keep spinning tend to leave our consciousness for the time being.
Now don’t worry they’re gonna be waiting for you when you come back to them after your meditation session. But part of what we do in mindful meditation is we practice choosing what we’re going to attend to. We practice choosing our thoughts that way we can focus our energies on the things that are most important and we can be present with those. And so by focusing our thoughts on “I’m breathing I’m breathing out” we practice doing that. Now you might be thinking yeah Chris but I’m a busy brain person. I promise you, anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a busy brain person. I get it. And so we we have to anticipate that other thoughts will enter our consciousness.
But think of it like this. I like to go to the movies with my wife and my favorite movie theater is at a mall here in my city. And so to get to the movie theater we have to walk through the mall. So imagine we’re walking through the through the mall headed to the movie theater. And while we’re on our way to the theater coming the other way I see someone that I know. And we make eye contact so I see them. They see me. So ignoring them is not an option because that would be rude.
Besides that I basically have two options I can either stop and talk to them. I can engage and be late to my movie or I can wave to them and say “Hi I see you. Hello friend. I can send them some loving kindness. I’m happy to see you. Hope you’re having a good day. Okay I’m going to the movies. Bye bye.” And in a way we do the same thing with our thoughts when we’re engaged in mindfulness meditation. We see them come into our consciousness. We just make the choice and we practice not grabbing them trying to wrestle them to the ground and control them.
Because you recognize that the moment you grab onto a thought to try to control it it has control over you. It has taken control of you by occupying your thought process when you’re trying to focus on something else. And so the way we gain control over that is we choose not to engage. We turn our attention back to the breath. Now, we fail at this all the time. You may be thinking “Chris how do I do that. That’s hard.” It is hard. And that’s kind of the point because the power in mindfulness meditation is not in perfection. I don’t think that’s possible.
The Power of Meditation
The power in mindfulness meditation is the failing and regrouping over and over again. We catch ourselves grabbing onto those thoughts and then we release. Catch and release catch and release. And just like going to the gym you can’t I can’t go do bench presses and do one and be done and expect to get stronger. We practice when those thoughts infiltrate our consciousness and we inadvertently grab onto them even when we don’t want to. We practice releasing them and they go on and eventually we get better at it. It’s a practice it’s something we can improve at. And by doing that we gain control over our own consciousness.
Now this is deeply connected to our emotional health. Let me explain how intrusive thoughts can translate into emotional distress so easily. And the way that happens is normally we tell ourselves a story. And so maybe someone you know looks at you in an unexpected way and you don’t really know how to interpret it. Well from there you take that information and you can construct a story that is so elaborate and unkind to you that before you know it you can be in this mindset that this person hates me and they can’t stand me and nobody likes me and I’m a horrible person just from one funny look from someone else when you don’t even know what they were thinking about when they looked at you.
We are all master storytellers. And to illustrate the point think about this. Have you ever constructed an argument in your head that you anticipated might happen but had not happened yet and I might have done that much or twice. It’s so easy to do. And when we do that a part of our consciousness kind of thinks that’s real. And we have a physiological reaction we have an emotional reaction so we can have arguments in our own mind that our heart and literally our physical heart and our emotional heart both respond to and it’s an argument that’s never even happened before.
Don’t forget the brain has a negative bias. We are seven times more attuned to negative stimuli than positive stimuli. What I think that means is that with neutral stimuli we’re probably seven times more likely to interpret that as a threat than we are to interpret that as something that is safe.
So we are just inundated with opportunities to make up stories that have us ending up as tiger food. Right? And so part of our goal is to stop digging ourselves in so deep when we have these thoughts these intrusive thoughts. What do we do with those. Well when we learn to release them then we don’t grab that shovel and start digging right. We don’t put ourselves into that hole of thinking that people hate us or thinking that we look stupid or thinking that who knows what any number of things. And so now to be clear I am not a “turn your frown upside down” kind of therapist. That’s not the way I work. But I am an advocate for putting down the shovel. I’m an advocate for learning to focus our energies on what’s authentic and what’s true and what’s in the moment.
And for me and for my clients when we sit and talk about what’s true, true means accurate verifiable and now. OK so even if you correctly predict something that happens down the road if it hasn’t happened yet it’s not true. The things we want to focus our energies on are what’s in the here and now and what’s true and what’s verifiable. The more we’re able to do that the more we’re able to be present with those things in our lives that bring us joy. And that’s the way that mindfulness meditation can help us be happier people.
So there we have it in three separate domains, the physical the cognitive and the emotional mindfulness meditation can be a huge help. Now if your version is prayer you can adapt to that if your version is yoga you can adapt that much of the process though is having compassion for ourselves when we fail.
I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect ourselves to have a clear mind or to even stop the process completely of grabbing onto those thoughts when they enter our consciousness but through mindfulness meditation we can practice letting go of those things. Now you might say “Chris that’s all good and well but I don’t have time for this. This is gonna take forever.”
The truth is two to three minutes a day can have a therapeutic effect for us and I don’t believe that anyone is unable to carve out two to three minutes a day. You can put your phone down for a minute you can watch a little less Netflix. There are all kinds of things we can do when you drive somewhere pause in your car for two to three minutes just focus on your breathing and so two to three minutes a day can actually have a therapeutic effect and then we build up from there.
Of course it’s hard at the beginning and I will tell you the first time you sit for three minutes focusing on your breathing. It does it feels like an eternity. I understand that you can set a timer for yourself and just let that go. So there we go. That’s mindfulness meditation for anxiety. Thanks for being here today. I really appreciate it. I’ve got some really nice comments from people. Please do share this show with other people let the people you care about know that it’s out there. Please subscribe and please leave comments below. That makes so much difference in our ability to reach other people and then we can get into your regular information flow as well. So thanks again for being here and I’ll see you next time.