“Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths.”
― Charles Haddon Spurgeon

One of the many benefits of mindfulness as suggested by psychological research is that it can help to reduce levels of anxiety – which is good news if you’re one of the millions worldwide who suffer from it.

According to mentalhealth.org.uk, behavioural problems such as depression, anxiety and drug use are “reported to be the primary drivers of disability worldwide, causing over 40 million years of disability in 20 to 29-year-olds.”

Anxiety UK and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimate that there are approximately three million adults (in both the UK and US) who suffer from anxiety, many of whom have a co-occurring physical illness which makes recovery even more difficult.

In terms of worldwide figures, a 2012 Global Burden of Disease (GBD) Study suggested that around 1 in 13 people are affected by anxiety who experience a range of effects including excessive worrying, muscle tension and aches, headaches, sweating, difficulty concentrating, nausea, and tiredness – to name just a few of the symptoms.

As mental health issues such as anxiety are on the rise throughout the world, practices such as mindfulness are viewed as effective complementary treatments alongside conventional methods – but how can mindfulness be applied to help reduce the symptoms of anxiety?

Before we get into that, an important caveat needs to be highlighted. Mindfulness should be used as a complementary treatment in conjunction with professional therapy, rather than a standalone method to treat issues such as depression and anxiety, particularly for those who suffer from major or chronic conditions.

Such a caveat is necessary, given the stories that abound concerning people with anxiety who have looked to mindfulness programs or teachers for help and received advice such as to “note the feelings present and just let it be”. In some cases, this has led to a worsening of the condition due to the client not having the right tools or appropriate guidance to deal effectively with the feelings that arise.

Ajahn Brahmali – a senior Buddhist monk at Bodhinyana monastery in Australia – suggests that, if anyone finds mindfulness techniques to be overwhelming, they should immediately suspend the practice. He adds: “To be able to let go you need the right tools; it’s not just something you can do on command. If you try to do it on command, you will end up using willpower, and suppression and repression will often be the result. This is detrimental to one’s mental well-being.

“This may be one of the reasons people get negative results from mindfulness practice. (In other words, it’s not really mindfulness practice any more – as in being a passive observer – but a subtle form of control.) If mindfulness is unpleasant for a particular person, I would recommend them to stop. They need to plug away at the foundations so as to create the conditions in which mindfulness becomes both relatively pleasant and useful.”

That said, psychological research has indicated that mindfulness can be useful in helping to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. In their 2010 paper, ‘What Facets of Mindfulness Contribute to Psychological Well-being and Depressive, Anxious, and Stress-related Symptomology?’ researchers Morgan Cash and Koa Whittingham found that the ability to refrain from judging ourselves “predicted lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress”.

Additionally, what they called being “Act-aware” – the ability to maintain awareness of our daily activities – predicted lower levels of depression. With this in mind, the researchers suggest an approach to mindfulness that emphasises “developing the ability to accept, rather than judge, the thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations that arise in the course of daily activities”.

Wandering mind

Mindfulness training – particularly in mindfulness meditation – can be extremely useful in helping to minimise rumination, or the excessive thinking that can trigger episodes of anxiety. In their 2010 study of the effects of mind-wandering, Harvard psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert discovered that, on average, our minds wander for almost half of our waking hours, and for no less than 30 per cent of the time when we’re engaged in most activities.

In a 2012 study, researchers at the University of Oregon found that the default-mode network (DMN) – the part of the brain that helps us to create the story of who we are – was less active in meditators, who reported fewer instances of mind-wandering. Although mind-wandering can be beneficial when we’re aware of what’s going on (and the wandering is engaged in positive thoughts), the majority of our mind-wandering relates to stressful or unhelpful thinking, which negatively affects our mood and subsequently the stories we create about ourselves and the world around us.

Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, believes that mindfulness meditation helps us to clearly see when we are becoming entangled in unhelpful streams of thought.

In an interview with nhs.uk he added: “This lets us stand back from our thoughts and start to see their patterns. Gradually, we can train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over and realise that thoughts are simply ‘mental events’ that do not have to control us.

“Most of us have issues that we find hard to let go and mindfulness can help us deal with them more productively. We can ask: ‘Is trying to solve this by brooding about it helpful, or am I just getting caught up in my thoughts?’ Awareness of this kind also helps us notice signs of stress or anxiety earlier and helps us deal with them better.”

Mindfulness meditation can be beneficial in enabling us to decrease our tendency of getting caught up in our thoughts, feelings and emotions. The following instructions outline a basic mindfulness meditation practice, which can be done for five minutes initially, and then built up to 10 minutes and so on as the practice becomes more comfortable. The key to seeing results in meditation is consistency: it is more beneficial to practise every day for five minutes than to practise for 20 minutes twice a week.

Once again, if any mindfulness practice or exercise becomes overwhelming or uncomfortable, it’s worth suspending the practice until substantial guidance or support is sought, especially if there is a significant mental health issue present. We may not feel negative effects on our mental health as quickly as problems with our physical health; nevertheless, we should always take our mental health just as seriously, if not more so, in order to prevent any unnecessary problems from arising.

Mindfulness Meditation

  1. Sit on a chair with your back straight (but not rigid) and place your hands in a comfortable position, for example, folded on your lap or facing palm-down on your thighs. Your legs should be comfortable-yet-stable. Try to avoid crossing them at the ankles, as this might cause some discomfort and distract your meditation.
  2. When you’re ready, close your eyes and carry out a quick scan of your body: is your back straight? Are you sitting comfortably? Do you need to shift your weight a little from one side to improve balance? Spend the first 30 seconds or so making sure you’re as comfortable as you can be; don’t be afraid to adjust your position if it’s required.
  3. Once you’re comfortable, take some time to just be in the moment. There’s no rush to jump to the breath or centre the mind…just as you dip your toe into the water to test it, ease into the meditation by feeling the weight of your body on the chair, how your feet feel on the floor, and note any ambient sounds that you can hear. For the next few minutes, there’s nothing to do, nowhere to go – all you need to do is be with whatever comes into your awareness.
  4. Once you’ve settled into the meditation, it’s at this point you can start to bring your attention to the breath. If you prefer, you can focus on a particular point where the breath comes in and out, such as the tip of the nose. Otherwise, you can simply observe the feeling of the breath as it comes in and out, without controlling it. Noticing its natural rhythm, allow the mind to be anchored in that observation, again keeping in mind that there’s nowhere you need to be at this time, no need to worry about the past or the future. You’re just spending a few moments being exactly where you are, and how you are, right now.
  5. You might notice during these moments that the mind likes to drift off, carried away by the tide of thoughts that pop up. Whenever you notice this, just return your mind back to the attention of the breath. There’s no need to get frustrated or even to judge your reaction if you do – it’s natural for the mind to wander and for feelings to arise. Each time you bring it back to the centre, it’s like doing one repetition of a bicep curl or a squat: with each ‘rep’, you’re strengthening your mindfulness over time.
  6. Should you find it difficult to stop the mind from wandering, take three deliberate deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling slowly; this should help to calm the wave of thoughts and allow you to carry on with your meditation.
  7. As you come to the end of your meditation, it’s good to check in with the body again with a quick scan, noticing how your chest, back and legs feel, noting if there’s any tension. If there is, take a few deep breaths and try to gently relax the area of tension. Don’t try to ‘get rid’ of any sensation, but rather use your deep breathing as a visualisation, as though it’s helping to softly dissolve the tension wherever it exists.
  8. When you’re ready to end the meditation, open your eyes and remain where you are for just a few moments longer. Sometimes, the temptation is there to ‘get on’ to the next thing on your to-do list. By taking a few moments just to sit where you are, the impulse of the ‘monkey mind’ becomes less potent with practice…it feels good when you decide when you’re going to move, rather than being compelled by an impulse.