How mindfulness can help calm anxiety before it gains power

There’s a lot of talk these days about mindfulness. What exactly is mindfulness and how can being mindful help someone?

A lot of folks hear the word “mindfulness” and immediately think that it’s some weird, new age-y thing. It’s not that at all. So, what is it?

What is mindfulness?

It’s not just awareness or being conscious of something. If you’re mindful, it can deepen your experience of the present. In The Mindful Way through Depression : Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, the authors describe the relationship between consciousness (awareness) and mindfulness. “…mindfulness is much more than paying attention more thoroughly.

It is paying attention differently– changing how we pay attention… Being mindful means intentionally turning off the autopilot mode in which we operate so much of the time – tuning in to things as they are in the present with full awareness”

Try this. You’re sitting or standing somewhere reading this. Notice for a moment how your body feels. If you’re sitting, notice the weight of your body in the chair. Notice what you can hear. Notice if there’s a breeze or if the air is still around you. Notice if you can taste anything. That’s being mindful. Notice what you may be feeling. You’re in the moment you’re living right now.

Anxiety tends to keep you thinking about the future – depression about the past. So, mindfulness accentuates the importance and energy of the now. But the practice of mindfulness has another, vital function.

If you simply notice a painful emotion or a thought in the present, but you don’t fuel it in any way (like hating it or wanting it to go away), that very acceptance can disempower it. It’s what we think about or believe about something that causes us to make a judgment about it – not the thing itself.

My own journey with learning mindfulness…

Let me offer myself as an example. I’ve been very open about having anxiety, to be specific, panic disorder. I’m a student of mindfulness with much left to learn. But I’ve been trying to notice my anxiety when it happens – to stay in the present and to allow my anxiety to be, rather than forming a judgment about it or fueling it with fear. My particular panic causes my legs to shake at times.

The other day, it was beginning to happen. Instead of freaking out, feeding the panic with the thought, “I bet this is going to lead into a big panic attack — I’ll be horribly embarrassed and I’ll never come in this shop again,” I simply noticed my legs. “Hmm… it feels like my legs are starting to shake.” I didn’t heap fear or shame on it. And it faded away.

The more you practice staying in the moment, it’s like anything else you practice. It can become a new pattern, a new behavior. It begins to set up its own pattern and become a ready option for you.

So how can mindfulness help me with PHD?

What about mindfulness is specifically important for Perfectly Hidden Depression (PHD) and catching your perfectionism before it gains power?

With PHD, you’re constantly evaluating yourself, and not living up to who you believe you could be. Even if you’re successful, or have accomplished things very difficult to accomplish, you’ll focus instead on what could be better.

Or perhaps you’ve had it in your mind to do something. But you put it off because you can’t fit it in to your overly-crowded schedule right now. So you push it completely (or almost completely) out of your consciousness — except you know you haven’t done it — and rather than admit, “Sorry, I can’t pull that off today,” or, “Hey, I’ll get to that next week, but this week’s just impossible,” you shame yourself for the avoidance.

It goes way beyond drive or high expectations. It’s a Catch 22. Do it, but not perfectly — and there’s shame. Don’t do it — put it off — and there’s shame.

What it feels like to not wallow in shame but be mindful of it…

Shame is a feeling. So think of feelings as waves in an ocean. Each feeling — each wave has a life of its own. It begins far out, deep in the sea itself. Then gradually as it rolls to shore you can see its shape, its strength, its power. But when its time is done, when it disappears into froth on the beach, it is replaced by the next wave.

And all you can feel is the undertow, reflecting it still exists but has gone under the surface once again. And this process goes on and on and on. Mindfulness is being aware of each moment of that wave’s – that emotion’s — apparent life — riding it until it inevitably comes to an end.

So what does being mindful of shame mean? What would that process look like or feel like?

The voice of your PHD has told you that if you noticed emotional pain, it might never go away. But if you’re mindful of shame, you can discover you have the capability of noting it, connecting with it, feeling it, and then moving into the next present moment. “Oh, there’s shame. Hmm…” If you don’t hate the shame or avoid the shame or wallow in the shame, but simply notice its presence, you can learn that you can cope with it — and then let it go.
An emotion or thought only has power if you give it power. It’s quite an experience.

It can free you to be in the moment you’re living — not worried about what’s coming next or grieving what happened in the past.

If you’ve been supported and loved by someone, you might want to thank them in a small way.

About The Author:
Dr. Margaret Rutherford, a clinical psychologist, has practiced for over twenty-five years in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Her work is found on her own website, as well as HuffPost, Psych Central, Psychology Today, The Good Men Project, The Gottman Blog and others. She’s the author of “Marriage Is Not For Chickens”, a perfect gift book on marriage, and hosts a weekly podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford.

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