Understanding Anxiety and How Mindfulness Can Help
Updated: Dec 27, 2022
What is Anxiety?
We all experience anxiety at some point in our lives, whether it is from the pressure of performing in school, meeting a stranger, undergoing life changes, or embarking on a big trip. Anxiety is a normal human response to stress or a perceived threat. In some cases, the emotion can be helpful, sparking motivation, alertness, caution, and productivity. But what happens when symptoms of anxiety, such as worry, stress, tension, and panic persist? What happens when we experience anxious thinking for extended periods of time to the point that it gets in the way of our plans, relationships, personal wellness, and daily lives?
As described by the American Psychological Association, anxiety “is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”
Individuals who experience intense anxiety on a recurrent basis may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and often experience a variety of unpleasant symptoms, such as:
Shortness of breath/tight chest
Racing heart rate
Sweaty hands, shaky body
Weight loss or gain
Headaches, cramping, and digestion distress
Fatigue and or depression
Increased blood pressure
A consistent feeling of helplessness, fear, panic, and/or dread
Other mental health concerns: Psycom Pro reports that nearly 60% of individuals who experience anxiety also suffer from depression
People dealing with an anxiety disorder may feel that they do not have control over their thoughts and may avoid a variety of situations that could spark their anxiety, like social gatherings, travel, higher education, etc. Depending on what triggers one’s anxiety, they may be diagnosed with a specific type of anxiety disorder:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Obsessive- Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Social Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety on the Rise
Due to their pervasiveness, anxiety disorders are among the most concerning mental health issues in our country. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that just under 20% of all adults living in the US today suffer from an anxiety disorder, that’s roughly 40 million adults. Moreover, the NAMI estimates that among adults in the US, over 30% will develop an anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime. Anxiety is also on the rise in young people. Among our youth aged 3-17, over 9% had an anxiety diagnosis in 2016-2019.
Treating Anxiety with Mindfulness
Cindy Pearson Garcia defines mindfulness as “A state of being in the present moment with awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It is a time to observe without judging.”
Anxiety is one of the most common concerns that Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) Cindy Pearson Garcia sees among her clients at Compassionate Care Counseling. For many clients, common sources of anxiety are related to relationships, work/finances, and climate change. Developing a mindfulness practice, she believes, is an effective strategy to manage anxiety, no matter what its source. Mindfulness empowers us to shift our reaction to something away from “fight or flight” mode, and towards a more useful response.
Furthermore, anxiety is often triggered when we obsess over a potential future threat or scenario playing out. This is different from the emotion of fear, which is a response to a threat in real-time. Mindfulness brings us into the present. With consistent practice, we can train our minds to avoid worrying about things that we have no control. We learn to accept, which is an important tool for those who want to calm their anxious mind.
Cindy reflects on mindfulness as “A state of being in the present moment with awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It is a conscious experience of observation and being with what is, without effort or judgment. Awareness guides us to identify and name what is occurring in the mind which can bring about liberation from attachment and reaction to what is found there.”
For example, being in a crowded place may create bodily and mental discomfort for some. Tension, stress, and an increased heart rate may arise. Mindfulness could be applied, Cindy suggests, by bringing attention to the source of one’s discomfort which could be a physical sensation. Following that thread, what thoughts are in the mind? Perhaps it’s a negative memory or disliking overstimulation. Try to tease out a single thought, even if you find the mind has more background dialogue running. Once the thought has been identified, pay attention to what emotions come up with it. Maybe a thought of being overstimulated gives rise to an emotion of fear, or perhaps shame. By naming and becoming familiar with the uncomfortable emotion, it can get easier to be with and not react, with the goal of dissolving the anxious response.
Through mindfulness we can learn more about ourselves, become familiar with triggers and fears, while finding a way to change our response. The thought will come and go, as it always does. It is a process. “We don’t have to become entangled in it,” reminds Cindy. She further adds, “Therapy is a great opportunity to unravel how these dynamics play out in our minds and lives and develop tools to advance our inner transformation.” The journey of mindfulness takes some time, self-reflection, and practice.
So, take a deep breath, and remember you are not alone. Anxiety does not have to rule your world and can be treated with a variety of approaches, including a mindfulness practice.
Contact Cindy for a consultation to see if she is the right therapist for you!