A Mindfulness Exercise to Reduce Anxiety from the Inside Out
It can be extremely effective to deal with anxiety from the inside out even though anxiety is often caused–or exacerbated–by forces outside of us. That’s because even if the cause of our anxiety is external, our reaction is internal and involves our entire mind (thoughts and feelings), brain (the physical organ and its structures and activities), and body (every part of our body is impacted by and can affect our anxiety). To help you reduce anxiety from deep within so you can calmly respond to stressors without, I offer you a mindfulness activity as well as information about why it works and when to do it.
Why This Mindfulness Activity Calms Anxiety from the Inside Out
Mindfulness is a practice and a way of being. There’s a lot to mindfulness, but its core is fairly simple: mindfulness is living in each present moment as it comes instead of being stuck in your head thinking about things that already happened or might possibly happen in the future (it also helps us avoid multitasking and distracted living, such as being sucked into our screens when we’re spending time with loved ones, for example). Mindfulness helps us live our lives richly and fully and with less anxiety.
Anxiety is the polar opposite of mindfulness. When we’re anxious, we’re stuck in our mind, caught up in racing thoughts and roiling emotions about the past or the future. Sure, our worries can seem like they’re about the present moment. Those with social anxiety, for example, might be worried about being judged during this meeting or worried about people laughing about what we just now did, or someone with generalized anxiety disorder might worry about a disaster on this car trip, but all of these worries and fears are truly about the past (even if it was 30 seconds ago) or the future (even if the fear might come true in 30 seconds). In remaining stuck in our anxious thoughts and feelings, we aren’t living in the present moment.
The below mindfulness exercise (and all mindfulness activities), pulls us out of our mind and into the present moment. When we step away from our thoughts and experience our tangible world with our senses, we shift our attention and disrupt our negative thinking patterns and emotional and physical reactions. We begin to reduce anxiety from the inside out.
Mindfulness, such as the below exercise, works in other ways, too. In addition to shifting your attention away from anxiety and onto something tangible in the present, it:
- Immediately calms your body’s stress response, the fight-flight-or-freeze response, by switching off your sympathetic nervous system and switching on the parasympathetic nervous system, thus slowing your heart rate and blood pressure and redirecting your blood flow from your limbs to your core
- Helps you develop a non-judgmental perspective of yourself and your situations so that instead of thinking of problems as terrible, you stay neutral and calm and are equipped to respond to them thoughtfully
- Allows you to let go of what is making you anxious so that you become unhooked and detached (acceptance and commitment therapy uses the word defusion for this distance you create between yourself and your anxiety)
Knowing that mindfulness is truly doing something to calm your anxiety from the inside out can help motivate you to practice it (and it does take practice for it to come naturally). The following mindfulness exercise can get you started or give you a new activity to add to your existing mindfulness practice to reduce anxiety.
Reduce Anxiety from the Inside Out with This Mindfulness Exercise
Read through the full exercise so you know what to expect, and then give it a try. Feel free to keep coming back to the description as you learn it, and as will any mindfulness activity, it’s perfectly okay to modify it to make it suit you.
- Close your eyes or soften your gaze to look down a few feet in front of you.
- Take several slow, deep breaths and concentrate on the sound and sensation of the air entering and leaving your body with each inhale and exhale.
- Tune into your body and notice where you are carrying your anxiety right now. It might be concentrated in one spot like your chest or gut, or you might feel body-wide joint or muscle pain, for example.
- Focus your attention on this area (or areas) lovingly, and breathe deeply while visualizing the tension releasing from your body. (You might feel this immediately, but if you’ve been holding anxiety for a long time, it will likely take multiple times doing this activity before you begin to feel it. Be patient with yourself, and simply notice without judging.)
- Now turn to your attention to your mind. Acknowledge your anxious thoughts and emotions, and give them a name. You might use this pattern: « I’m feeling like _____ because I think _________. » (« I’m feeling like a wreck right now because I think I’m not good enough to have meaningful relationships. »)
- Now, distance yourself from your anxiety by reminding yourself, « I’m having these thoughts and feelings, but they aren’t my reality right now, in this moment. »
- Gently open your eyes, and shift your attention outside of you, tangible things you can take in with your senses. Concentrate on something you see, hear, feel, or smell, and spend time observing it without evaluating it.
- Conclude by thinking a grateful thought about this focus object.
When to Do This Mindfulness Activity to Reduce Anxiety
One of the great things about mindfulness is that it’s always accessible because it’s about being fully present wherever you are, whenever you are. Once you become used to this exercise, you can do it any time it suits you. You might begin your day with it in order to center yourself, or you might do it right before bed to quell worries, fears, and what-ifs. You can also do this whenever your anxiety spikes during the day. Taking even a few moments to calm your whole being helps you respond to stress rather than react to it negatively.
Like any mindfulness exercise, it becomes increasingly effective with time and patience. The more you do this, the more you train your mind, brain, and body to remain present, centered, and calm. Then, it becomes automatic, and you just might find that you naturally begin to reduce your anxiety from the inside out whenever it strikes.