Use Mindfulness to Quell Anxiety

“Worrying doesn’t take away tomorrow’s troubles. It takes away today’s peace.” – Andy Armstrong, musician

My last couple of posts arose in response to Dr. Judson Brewer’s book Unwinding Anxiety. They covered Brewer’s research regarding the use of mindfulness to overcome bad habits. Before moving on to another scholar’s work, it’s worth taking a few moments to examine the titular subject of the book – anxiety.

We define anxiety as a feeling or worry, nervousness, or unease in the face of upcoming events or circumstances with uncertain outcomes. It arises because our survivalist brains want to predict the future accurately; uncertainty threatens our safety and engenders fear.

fear plus uncertainty equals anxiety

Common sources of anxiety include health, safety, job security, finances, politics, and personal relationships. The prospect of public speaking can also send most folks into a tizzy. Even happy occasions can prompt a bout of anxiety, such as impending nuptials, birth of a child, or dream vacations.

Anxiety urges action. We may attempt to satisfy the itch for certainty by seeking more information or developing contingency plans. (Warning: Fake news on the Internet spreads 6x as fast as real news and may exacerbate anxiety!) We may try to ward off undesirable outcomes by clinging to or grasping for that which feels safe. We may have a go at distracting ourselves from worry by indulging in our favorite addiction (although worry may come back with a vengeance after the distraction has run its course). We may even work ourselves up into a full-blown panic attack because that feels as though we are doing something in response to our anxiety, crazy though that might sound!

Brewer identifies anxiety (worry) as a harmful habit that often hides in other bad habits:

WORRY LOOP Trigger Behavior Result
Anxious thought
or emotion;
impending event
Worry Googling, overplanning, overeating, over imbibing, procrastinating, pacing, …

Worrying can trigger more worrying, perhaps resulting in a generalized anxiety disorder. We can even worry because we don’t know why we’re worried! Even though worrying doesn’t work, our old brain keeps doing it because action (however misguided) seems rewarding in the moment.

We need to be able to name anxiety in order to work with it and break the habit loop. Note that it may not manifest as a clear and unambiguous signal. (“Oh, no! I’m worried!”) It could show up as anger, irritability, impatience, fear, craving. The tell-tale sign might be an impulse that takes the prefrontal cortex off-line and with it rational thought, decision making, and planning.

Whenever we feel a bout of anxiety coming on, Brewer recommends that we pause and take a deep breath to stop the downward spiral. Give the prefrontal cortex the chance to come back on line. Use curiosity to take note of the bodily sensations that are taking root, the emotions that are surfacing, and the stories that might be cropping up alongside them. Curiosity helps us process the anxiety rather than distract ourselves from it. It also has the effect of quelling the sensation as curiosity serves as an appropriate action and reward for the initial trigger

Brewer reminds us that what we make of this moment creates the bead that adds to the necklace of life experiences. If we’re anxious, we create a bead of anxiety. If we are anxious a lot, we create an anxiety necklace. But we can step out of the worry loop and create a calming, compassionate, supportive string of pearls.