Frequently someone dashes to the emergency room for chest pain and difficulty breathing, and the doctor insist “go see a therapist!”  Sometimes friends do not come to our parties and we are baffled, “why?” And when we walk about town, we see people who are not able to respond to a friendly “Hello!”

Anxiety is epidemic in the United States affecting 17% of Americans per the National Institute of Mental Health. It costs us relationships, jobs and quality of life. The expectations of people in Western cultures can lead people to become significantly anxious. We are busy, busy, busy, moving, moving, moving. Our connection to one another seems to be dwindling. Mindfulness training is an excellent tool for the management and reduction of anxiety. Mindfulness can help us to slow down and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!

Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are about observing, watching, noticing our lives with intimacy, curiosity and balance. Mindfulness meditation is about learning to understand how the mental formation of anxiety comes about and recognizing and accepting this anxiety formation. We then let go, coming back to this precious moment of awareness and loving connection with this world. Understanding anxiety is crucial to the management and reduction of this emotion.

Beartooth Mountains, Montana

Most consistently meditation practitioners have a sense of deepening joy and contentment. An important aspect to meditation practice is about understanding the most healthy means to direct our energy, “choosing the right wolf to feed.” If we feed the anxious wolves, we obsess and avoid. If we feed the gentle, peaceful, tranquil wolves we have those gentle peaceful tranquil wolves as our friends, and we give up on obsessing and avoiding. And what are the peaceful wolves? Believe it or not, in mindfulness practice we also need to learn to befriend the anxious wolves!

Emotions like anxiety teach us what we value. If we lose our dog we will be very sad. If we are anxious about today’s lesson plan, this anxiety can help us to prepare. Chronic persistent anxiety is different. This type of anxiety can rob us of our precious lives. We may avoid rich situations like challenging conversations with our spouse, our children’s soccer meets or telling our boss we need a week off this spring.

Anxiety is a natural emotion that prepares us for a threat. We may be anxious when studying for an exam, or if we are about to get married. People mistaken fear for anxiety. Notice that some people will say this or that is scary, when it can be a good idea to say this or that is making me anxious. Anxiety is typically different than fear in that anxiety is more chronic and future based, and fear is short term and there is an immediate threat. Public speaking is a lot different than swimming with crocodiles in Africa. However, anxious people may tell you “I think I pick the crocodiles!”

So we confuse fear and anxiety. Both emotions typically both activate the sympathetic nervous system “fight or flight.” We become confused because the sensations are similar, like increased pulse and muscle tension. Learning to recognize and accept anxious physical symptoms is a great technique to interrupt the cascading sympathetic system. Both anxiety and fear active cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream to prepare us for threat. For us that have anxiety challenges this sympathetic system is too habituated, too conditioned, too sensitive. We are interpretating people places and things as threatening, when these things are not as threatening as we make them to be.  

Americans seem to be constantly on the go, what’s the next thing, then the next thing. Activity in the mind occurs so quickly, that to be able to manage anxiety is a challenge. We witness something that we view is threatening, or we begin to think about something that is upsetting and before we know it we may be obsessing, and maybe even having a panic attack. This habitual pattern is part of the fertilizer for a turbulent mind. If we are practicing a turbulent mind, we become habituated to turbulent mind. This anxiety becomes stronger and more entrenched. We need examine our stressors and lifestyle. Learning to let go of too much stress, obligation,and duty can create relief, peace and spaciousness. This is paramount in understanding and undermining the anxious mind.    

Mindfulness training begins with giving, ethics and and letting go. Giving to others warms our heart, connects us to others and helps us to feel safe. Having loving supportive relationships is crucial to the dismantling of anxiety formations.. Virtue, doing the right things, trains the mind to be more relaxed, at peace with itself. Commitment to these virtues will help us to build a safer world for self and others. Letting go is observing with mindfulness what gets in the way of serenity, physically and mentally, then releasing. When we trust and have confidence in this process, we experience more spaciousness, openness and gentleness with ourselves and the world.

With more spaciousness and openness we have time to recognize and observe this anxiety. How is this anxiety coming about? Are there sensations such as tension, heat, vibrations? How is my mood, heavy or restless? Am I beginning to obsess? Do I want to run away? Be curious and accepting! Can I accept anxiety as a mental cluster of thoughts, sensations, mood and urges to run way, escape?

Often anxiety is the apprehension that we could be embarrassed, shamed or even humiliated. This suffering is a threat to how we relate to the world. The anxiety is like a death to our relationship to the world around us. How will public speaking or threatened kill me? Consider what happens if my speech goes wrong! Or am I going to humiliate myself if I go to the gym? And then if that bad thing happens what are my emotions? ? Embarrassment, humiliation, shame? Remorse or guilt? Doubt or despair? This trajectory can teach us about how to manage anxiety. Using techniques like Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy( MBCT) can help to challenge and dismantle distorted perceptions.

Anxiety is an unpleasant mental formation. Consider the stimulus, our boss tells us  “I want you to talk to me after work” which for a lot of us can lead to unpleasant feeling. In Buddhist psychology, feeling differs from emotion. Feeling is the particular tone to our assessment of experience: pleasant, unpleasant or neither pleasant or unpleasant feeling. With unpleasant feeling, there is most consistently an unpleasant trajectory, into unpleasant emotions such as anxiety. Two things are happening:  we are activated by old karma, old emotions about similar prior experience of people in authority talking to me. With folks that are challenged by anxiety, there is often an unpleasant emotion about the anxiety such as embarrassment or shame “I shouldn’t be feeling this, what is wrong with me etc.” The second unpleasant feeling is a reinforcer because it will make the anxiety stronger. “When my boss talks to me I feel awful!!”. Then the next time the stimulus is encountered we are even more anxious.

In mindfulness practice we are training the mind to be equanimous, non reactive, balanced. If we can notice anxiety as a formation, accept anxiety as unpleasant and train ourselves to be non reactive, we have a good chance f  interrupting the cascade of the stories we tell ourselves, and the secondary emotions such as remorse, or shame. Then the next time we are triggered into anxiety we can see that this formation, although unpleasant, it is impermanent and I do not have to take it personally.  We can use this anxiety to teach us about how we relate to the world around us, and help us to connect and love self and others!

Beck. A. Anxiety Disorders and Phobias.Persus Books. 1985.

Bourne, E. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook.Raincoast Books. 2015

Carlson, P. Anxiety and the Dharma.  Orlando Insight Mediation Group. October 4, 2017.

Carlson, P. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Dharma. Orlando Insight Meditation Group. October 18, 2017.

Wehreberg, M. 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques. W.W. Norton and Company. 2018