Many people will say that they feel anxious or that they are having anxiety, but what exactly does that mean? Anxiety is a combination of cognitive, physiological, and behavioral reactions to a trigger. Cognitively, people believe that there is a threat to them or that they are somehow vulnerable. Physiologically, the person’s breathing will quicken, their heartrate will increase, and they may feel nauseous or lightheaded. Behaviorally, the person will tend to want to get away from whatever is making them anxious. For example, if they are afraid of social interaction, they may stay home and not go out at all.
While there are many treatments for generalized anxiety disorder, such as exercise, diet, sleep, etc., I want to focus on the use of mindfulness to control and treat anxiety. Mindfulness is a treatment modality that uses physical and cognitive aspects to reverse the body’s reaction to anxiety, i.e. fast breathing and an increase in heartrate. Mindfulness also emphasizes focusing on the present, rather than the past or the future, which can be major sources of sadness and anxiety. Physically, mindfulness involves slow, deep abdominal breathing, while cognitively it involves focusing in on the breathing. Focusing on the breathing is important because breath is in the immediate present. However, it’s hard to avoid distracting thoughts completely, especially if they are anxiety-driven. In this case, it’s best to accept the distracting thoughts and let them go, gradually re-focusing on your breath, rather than trying to push them away. It is also important to breathe properly, deeply, causing the abdomen to rise. While this might feel awkward at first, I, or another psychologist can gladly demonstrate, and with practice, can feel quite normal. I also recommend mindful walks or mindful eating, activities in which complete focus is grounded in one’s senses, and attention is constantly brought back to the present.
Another state, called “flow” can bring one into even a deeper sense of well-being and focus. Being in a state of flow is like being in a state of mindfulness because attention is focused on the present. However, a state of flow is also a state of productivity. Flow involves pushing one’s abilities to the edge and challenging one’s self to further succeed at a task, without feeling underwhelmed or overwhelmed by the task at hand. Flow is essentially a sweet spot of presence and productivity where wellbeing goes up and depression and anxiety go down. While mindfulness can be an extremely effective treatment for generalized anxiety, it is important to practice regularly, because the brain, just like any other muscle needs to be exercised in order to get stronger. These approaches are both well worth reading up on, and practicing with a professional if needed, in order to lower negative emotions, and increase positive feelings, focus, and productivity.