5 Mindful Ways of Easing an Anxious Mind
By Gillian Florence Sanger
The human body is wired to help us manage stressful situations. With an innate stress response built into our system, the body knows just what to do when it encounters something threatening. Our heart rate quickens, digestion slows, the pupils dilate, and hormones surge as we prepare to fight or flee the situation.
While this response is lifesaving in times of real danger, in today’s modern world, many of the threats we encounter are perceived or non-life threatening. Instead, they are founded on worried thoughts, fuelled by currents of anxiety that prove difficult to shake. This chronic stress and anxiety that many of us experience wreak havoc on both mind and body, leaving us unable to navigate the world with peace, ease, and contentment.
To help us more effectively manage these persistent thoughts that hold us back from living with ease, mindfulness practices for anxiety can be explored. By getting to know a few simple practices, we equip ourselves with tools to help us come back to our peaceful center when we catch the mind lost in a wave of anxious thoughts.
- Belly Breathing
When the mind is enamoured with worried thought streams, a simple belly breathing practice can help us to re-find our balance. Not only does breath awareness help us to shift our focus away from whatever has us entrapped, it also helps to ease the physiological stress response.
In the 1970s, Dr. Herbert Benson coined the term ‘the relaxation response’, a counter movement to the body’s stress response. Abdominal breathing is one way of initiating this mechanism.
For beginners, it’s easiest to practice this lying down. Begin by placing one hand on the belly and one on the chest. As you begin to breathe slowly and steadily, see if you can direct the flow of your breath so that your lower hand (the one resting on your belly) rises more significantly than your upper hand. Practice this for three to five minutes to begin.
- Witnessing the Story
Another mindful practice to help us soften an anxious mind is to become more aware of the stream of thought moving through us. You might enquire: What is the story I am telling myself? As we tune into our thoughts with curiosity and compassion – rather than with assumption and belief – we pave the way for new possibilities to present themselves.
If anxious thoughts have arisen, take a moment to find a quiet space for compassionate enquiry. After grounding yourself through a few slow and steady breaths, begin to observe your thoughts as if you were an onlooker. You can practice detaching from the anxiety by noticing its presence as an energy body that is separate from who you are. So, rather than silently speaking the words, ‘I am anxious’, you might simply note the presence of worry, apprehension, or fear as separate energies. Gaze inwardly at your experience as if you were a loving, compassionate elder leading the way.
- Body Awareness
Coming into the body is another powerful practice for relieving worried thoughts. When we find ourselves caught up in the mind, the body provides a perfect anchor for reconnecting us to what is right here. This helps us to realign with our direct senses and to the world beneath, around, and within us.
We can practice body awareness through open enquiry or through a more traditional body scan. For open enquiry, we might simply ask ourselves: Where is this feeling present in the body? Once we’ve located any unique sensations, such as tightness, heat, or tingling, we can directly our loving attention and breath towards this area. We can sit with it for as long as is needed until it dissolves.
For a more traditional body scan, we might come to a comfortable lying down position and begin gently scanning the body from head to toe. By holding our attention on each area (and softening where it feels natural and safe to do so), we help both mind and body to relax and anxious thoughts to dissipate.
- Nature Observation
If we are located in a place where the natural world is near, we can certainly use our environment to help bring about greater feelings of peace and ease. Numerous studies (some of which are highlighted in National Geographic’s Call to the Wild) show the positive benefits that nature has on the human mind. One study, for instance, found that those who lived within approximately one half mile of green space exhibited lower rates of 15 different diseases – depression and anxiety being two.
Whether you have a forest, park, or beach nearby, taking a walk through a natural space can help to ease the mind when fear and worry arises. Deepen your experience of peace by tuning in attentively to your surroundings. Notice the aromas that fill your nasal cavity, the natural sounds that whisper in your ear drums, and the vibrant colours that radiate joyously in the natural world.
Last (but certainly not least), journaling is a powerful tool that helps us to express ourselves – and to gain clearer insights about what is passing through. We can begin by exploring what’s inside of us with some writing free flow – permitting the pen to let it all out.
Then, to direct our attention in positive and inspiring ways, we might consider journal prompts to help us uncover new insights, actions, and outlooks:
- Five ways I can nurture myself are…
- In this moment, I can invite ‘release’ to…
- To counter this experience of anxiety, the affirmation I need to remind myself of is…
Take your time to let your thoughts and words transition alongside your shifting experience. Let your journal be a trusted listener, accepting your flow with peace and patience and without conditions.
During any anxious moment we face, we can practice finding peace by turning our attention mindfully to what is within and around us. Shifting our attention in this way takes time, so ensure that you are practicing patience and compassion as you navigate the often difficult terrain. Moment by moment, we find our way through the worry that washes through us – one breath at a time.
Gillian Florence Sanger is a writer, poet, and yoga and meditation teacher. Through her work, she aims to uncover ever-deepening realms of soul and psyche for greater peace, self-awareness, and contentment.