Many of my clients come to me for help managing anxiety. Some experience panic attacks, while others struggle with racing thoughts and worries they can’t seem to step away from.
From an evolutionary perspective, anxiety is not such a bad thing. In fact, it can be quite adaptive- which is part of the reason why so many of us experience it. In short, if our ancestors had genes that made them highly anxious about being attacked by a predator, and therefore were more alert to signs of danger and more prepared for disaster, they were less likely to get eaten by a predator. And if they didn’t get eaten, they were more likely to live long enough to reproduce and pass those anxiety genes along to you and me. Ancestor has anxious genes –> ancestor doesn’t get eaten–> ancestor procreates –> you’ve got anxiety now too! But while anxiety might have helped our ancestors survive a life full of immediate dangers, it does not help us lead our best lives in our modern society where life-and-limb are not constantly at risk.
So what to do when anxiety gets out of hand? Knowing that it once served our ancestors well doesn’t help my clients all that much. My clients like having strategies to manage the anxiety when it comes up, so they can feel better and get on with their day. While there is no one quick fix to anxiety, this mindfulness practice is one tool that can help.
What is mindfulness? It’s a word we hear a lot about. Jon Kabat-Zin, a doctor, professor, author, and leader in the field of mindfulness in the US, defines mindfulness as paying attention on purpose to the present moment without judgement. That’s a lot of big ideas in one sentence, so let’s break it down:
Paying attention on purpose: This is when we choose to be curious about what’s happening. What do we hear? See? Feel? Taste? Smell? What’s going on in our mind right now? In our heart?
In the present moment: We’re not worried about what’s next, or what we did an hour ago, or if it’s going to snow tomorrow. We are living in the right now.
Without judgement: Oh boy. Here’s where it gets hard. When we’re practicing mindfulness, we are not labeling anything we experience as good or bad, wrong or right. Our stomach ache? Interesting. Uncomfortable. A sign of sickness perhaps? Gurgly. But not bad, not wrong. It just is what it is.
But how to be mindful in a world that is always rushing ahead? Without further ado, here’s our mindfulness strategy:
The 5,4,3,2,1 Strategy
For this mindful strategy, we are going to pay attention to our senses in this present moment. We are going to sit (or stand) still, stop what we are doing, and just observe and state.
First, we are going to pay attention to 5 things we can see. In this moment I can see my computer, my iced tea, my keys, my bookcase, and my shoes.
Now, we are going to notice 5 things we can hear. I can hear the air conditioner, cars outside my window, my breath, my stomach growling, and a voice in the next room.
Next, we note 5 things we can feel. I can feel my warm socks, I can feel that my fingers are cold, I can feel my breath in my nostrils, I can feel an ache in my lower back, and I can feel my feet on the floor.
Now, we repeat this practice with 4 things we can see, hear, feel. I can see my keys, my iced tea, my bookshelf, the blue wall. I can hear the air conditioner, cars going by, my breath, a voice in the other room. I can feel the warm sunshine on my back, my cold fingers, my breath in my nostrils, an ache in my back.
Now 3. I see my iced tea, blue wall, keys. I hear the air conditioning, my breath, traffic. I feel an ache, cold fingers, my breath.
Now 2. Iced tea, blue walls. Air conditioning, breath. Cold fingers, warm sunshine.
And 1. Blue wall, air conditioning, breath.
Okay, your turn to try. It helps to count on your fingers as you go along. I’ll wait here. You can say them out loud or in your head. Start now.
5 things you can see, 5 things you can hear, 5 things you can feel
4 things you can see, hear, feel
3 see, hear, feel
2 see, hear, feel
1 see, hear, feel
What was that experience like? My clients often say it takes so much concentration that it pulls them away from their worry thoughts. Did that happen for you? Was it hard? Easy? Strange? We spend so much time doing and hurrying and worrying in our world that it can seem bizarre to just sit and observe.
I recommend to my clients first use this mindfulness practice once a day when they are not anxious so they can learn it and get comfortable with the routine. Once they have it down pat, it is a useful tool for moments of intense anxiety or panic.
Still experiencing anxiety so big it impacts your work, sleep, health, or relationships? I can help. Contact me today for a free 15-minute phone consultation or to schedule an intake session.