Anxiety, and a closely related cousin called fear, start in the brain and trigger a cascading series of events throughout the nervous system. Our attention automatically narrows to our perceived threat. Next, our sympathetic nervous system is activated which gets our body ready to face (or flee from, or play dead for) whatever it is that triggered it. As our sympathetic nervous system arms it speeds up our heart-rate, tenses muscles, ramps up the blood pressure, and increases our breathing rate.
Triggers for anxiety, though, aren’t always the dinosaur lurking around the bend. Anxiety triggers can be much more subtle and much more innocuous, but still have the same large-scale effects. The trigger might be a thought about the future in which you think harm might come. It might be something innocent (a man wearing a baseball cap) that was previously associated with something scary (perhaps you were mugged by a man wearing a baseball cap).
In addition to our triggers not always being very accurate at predicting danger, sometimes we get the messages mixed up. Normally we perceive a threat and experience a bodily response (e.g. sweaty palms, racing heart, etc). Sometimes though we experience a bodily change (e.g. increase in heart rate) and think that means that there is something we need to be scared of. The feeling of anxiety might then start because of a physical change in our body.
This all sounds wholely unpleasant. In fact, if you experience anxiety you probably do what you can to avoid the whole thing. Maybe you start avoiding all men wearing baseball caps. Maybe you start drinking every time you feel your palms getting clammy. Maybe you pick a fight with your spouse when you get that nervous-heart-racing feeling. We go to great lengths to avoid unpleasant sensations because we subconsciously think that it means that doom and gloom are around the corner. When our perceptions work correctly, those signals mean that you are in danger and must escape. But other times we learn to misread our experience and feel as though we are in danger when really it’s just some old guy in a baseball cap.
If you experience anxiety over time you begin to mistrust your body to send you accurate signals. You may even mistrust your emotions because you don’t understand the linkages. By practicing mindfulness meditation we can undo this damage in a number of ways.
First off, mindfulness broadens our perceptual focus. We learn to notice the entirety of our experience which helps to prevent narrowing our attention to one cue or one threat. Secondly, through meditation we practice accepting and tolerating bodily and emotional experiences. We learn to sit through the discomfort, watch it change, and discover that what feels unbearable and extremely dangerous might not be afterall. In other words, we learn that we don’t have to pick a fight or have a drink to manage the feelings.
Someone plagued with anxiety also tends to default to a worrying pattern of thinking. Mindfulness meditation helps you to become aware of thought patterns that you might not know that you fall in to. By noticing the thoughts we gain some distance from them and realize they are not us or reality but just perceptions. This distance allows us to better decide how to react to them rather than automatically reacting to the thought as we normally do.
Meditation is also associated with lower states of nervous system arousal, which means that when you meditate you retrain your body to just calm down a bit. If you are anxious, chances are your body jumps to the danger alert more quickly than it should because that’s what it’s been used to doing. Through meditation you reteach your body to experience calm and react states that then become more accessible in day-to-day life.
If you are anxious and want to start a mindfulness meditation practice, consider seeking out a teacher or group to practice with. The experience of sitting in silence with anxiety can be scary, and might feel overwhelming. It can be helpful to have someone guide you through the experience to make it feel more manageable. Also consider starting with a walking or movement meditation or using a mantra during meditation at first to help focus and calm the mind until you can sit in silence more successfully.
Information pulled from:
“Mindfulness and Anxiety Disorders” by Greeson, J. & Brantley, J. in the Clinical Handbook of MIndfulness
“Full Catastrophe of Living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn
“A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook” by Stahl, B & Goldstein, E.