Do you worry excessively?
Do you have racing thoughts that you can’t stop?
Are you constantly anxious and uncertain about the future?
If yes, let’s do a breathing exercise together before you continue to read this post.
When you are filled with thoughts and emotions,
you can’t listen very well.
Your thoughts and emotions are blocking you from receiving new information. You filter what you want to hear and it’s more challenging to gain a new perspective.
Therefore, if you are feeling worried and anxious right now, do this breathing exercise with me first:
- Let’s take a deep breath together.
- Inhale deeply, hold it for three seconds, then exhale. When you release the air, imagine that you are flushing out all our thoughts and emotions with the exhale.
- Let’s do it again. Inhale deeply, hold it for three seconds, then exhale and release.
- One last time. Inhale deeply, hold it for three seconds, then exhale and release.
Okay, let’s proceed.
The Difference Between Worry and Anxiety
Most of us use the words “worry” and “anxiety” interchangeably. Even when we check their meanings in the dictionaries, we will get vague definitions such as “Worry is a state of anxiety” and “Anxiety is a feeling of worry.” These definitions don’t tell you much.
Worry and anxiety are rather different. Here are three of the main differences between the two.
1. Mind-Based Vs. Body-Based
Worry is more mind-based while anxiety is more body-based. When you worry, you can’t stop thinking about the bad things that could happen to you or other people. There are a lot of mental activities. On the other hand, when you are anxious, your body tends to shake or tremble uncontrollably even without any mental activity.
For example, sometimes when I was about to speak in front of a large group of people, my body would start to shake on its own. I wasn’t even thinking about how the speech is going to turn out. But my body just reacted to the fear and past trauma I had experienced from public speaking.
Anxiety is much closer to fear in terms of vibration
as compared to worry.
You tend to be in your mind a lot and there are fewer physiological responses when you worry. Anxiety, in contrast, is more like fear. You are more likely to fight, flight. or freeze in response to the threat.
2. Clear Threat Vs. Unclear Threat
We usually worry about something specific while the cause of anxiety tends to be vague. Take the recent coronavirus pandemic as an example.
If you are unable to work during the lockdown, you might worry about your finances and future. A specific event (i.e. lockdown) has occurred and that triggers you to think about the worst-case scenario or a possible, negative outcome (i.e “What happens if I become unemployed?”). This is worry and sometimes, it’s reasonable.
Anxiety, on the other hand, has an unclear cause or threat. You feel threatened by the pandemic but you don’t know what is going to happen next, how things are going to change, or when things are going to end.
There is more uncertainty when it comes to anxiety.
Anything or anyone can be threatening.
For instance, you don’t know who has the virus but you keep scanning the environment for threats as you walk down the street. Unable to tolerate uncertainty, you buy things that you don’t need to ease your fear. You check the news for the latest updates multiple times a day to make sure everything is okay.
When you have anxiety, you might not be in real, immediate danger but it seems like you are. You become hyper-vigilant and you start to think or act irrationally.
3. More Controllable Vs. Less Controllable
Worry tends to be more controllable and manageable than anxiety because it usually only involves the cognitive level. However, chronic worrying can result in high levels of anxiety and stress. Focusing too much on the negative outcomes generates more negative scenarios and uncertainty. The more you worry about the future, the more fearful and anxious you get.
Once you reach a stage of panic, you will feel out of control. Not only are your racing thoughts unstoppable but your body also reacts uncontrollably to the fear. You might start to hyperventilate and shake. This can become a vicious cycle. When you think that your body has gone out of control, it makes you feel even more anxious.
You want to be mindful of your thoughts and steer them
in the direction you want before it becomes anxiety.
Mindfulness is important because having awareness of your thoughts and the direction your thoughts are bringing you to enables you to change your direction and shift your attention to something else before things get out of hand.
Also, mindfulness can help you get out of anxiety attacks faster. Here’s how.
How to Overcome Worry and Anxiety Using Mindfulness
1. First, you need to know whether you are in a state of worry or anxiety.
We have already addressed their differences in the previous section. The reason why we want to differentiate the two is that it helps us determine how we are going to apply mindfulness to these two situations. Their treatments are somewhat different.
Mindfulness is the state of being aware of the present moment with intention and acceptance. However, you can choose to be aware of your thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, or surroundings. What we choose to pay attention to in each situation is key.
If you are worrying, pay attention to your mind.
If you are having anxiety, pay attention to your body.
This might sound counter-intuitive. I’m sure when you are having an anxiety attack, the last thing you want to focus on is your breath or your trembling body. Also, when you are worrying, you probably think that you are already paying attention to your mind and your thoughts. But are you?
Tuning into what your mind is saying is different from being consumed by what your mind is saying. When you are mindful, there’s a space between you (the awareness) and the mind. When you are not mindful, you are the mind. You are what the mind thinks.
It’s better to address your feelings of worry and anxiety upfront instead of distracting yourself or covering your emotions up with activities such as binge-eating or binge-watching and hoping that your emotions will go away on their own. They usually don’t.
Resistance makes the situation worse. An important ingredient to mindfulness is acceptance. It’s only when you give attention to the things that you are running away from and accept their existence that you can truly overcome them.
2. Bring your mind back to the present moment.
Every time you worry, you are projecting into the future. Your mind generates one negative scenario after another. For example, we might think: What if I lose my job during the pandemic? What if I can’t pay my bill or my rent? Will I be homeless? Where am I going to stay? Will I be able to feed my family? What if my partner leaves me for someone else?
Losing your job might be a genuine concern or a possible outcome of the lockdown. Some of us might even justify that our worries are necessary because worrying helps us in problem-solving. But think about this, “How can you solve a problem that has not arisen yet?”
A problem in the future can’t be solved because it’s not here yet.
You can only deal with a problem as and when it arises. Since the problem is only something that can happen in the future, it’s non-existent now. Hence, there’s nothing for you to solve.
That’s not to say that you can’t prepare or plan for the worst-case scenario. But preparation is different from worrying. Preparation requires you to take action now to minimize a possible risk in the future while worrying is about fixing the problem in your head. When we worry, we tend to focus more on the problem than the solution.
Also, when you prepare, you prepare for the first one or at most two scenarios that could happen. You don’t worry about all the rest of the scenario that could result due to the occurrence of the first scenario. If the first scenario didn’t occur, the rest of the scenario will not happen too. So why think so much into the future?
Our minds tend to travel way too far out into the future and project endless, negative possibilities. But if you practice mindfulness and bring your mind back to the present, you will realize that you have no problem right now. At this current moment, you haven’t lost a job. You still have a shelter over your head. The worst-case scenario that you have predicted hasn’t occurred yet, so all is well at this moment in time.
3. Be careful of your assumptions.
Practicing mindfulness helps you to take a step back from your thoughts. When you maintain some distance from your anxious thoughts while observing them, you will realize what your mind has been thinking about are just possible scenarios that could happen. You don’t know for sure that it will happen or not.
For example, you can be worried about how others will perceive you. But you can never be sure if someone perceives you positively or negatively. Yes, you can pick out cues from what they say or do but you can’t know what they are thinking in their mind because you don’t have access to their mind. So your perceptions are always based on your interpretation.
A lot of our thoughts are based on our beliefs and our beliefs are based on past experiences or social conditioning. If you examine your beliefs, you will realize that a lot of them are just assumptions.
What you assume is bad might be something good.
Five years ago, I was jobless and I worried too much about the future that I sank into depression. All of us are taught to have a stable job. We believe that not having a job is bad and that we need to find one to feel safe. But being jobless is one of the best things that has ever happened for me. (Not to me, but for me.) Without a job, I was forced to overcome my fear of being a full-time writer and it challenged me to create a job instead of finding one.
When we worry, we think of the worst scenarios that could happen to us. But who knows whether it’s good or bad? These so-called “bad” things might be our path to spiritual growth and expansion. So don’t assume that things will be bad for you.
4. Allow your body to release energy on its own.
When you are having anxiety or panic attacks, the best thing you can do is to allow your body to release energy on its own. Your body already has the innate wisdom to process your emotions. It knows what to do with the fear you are experiencing.
If your hands are shaking or your body is trembling, allow your body to do so. Don’t suppress the involuntary movements. You also don’t need to exaggerate the physiological responses by shaking your hands or body. Just be still, observe your bodily sensations and trust what your body is doing. The movements will stop once the cycle is complete.
Uncontrollable shaking helps to remove the traumatic experience
from your body. It’s just part of the releasing process.
Some books about trauma such as Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine mentions that animals “play dead” when they face dangers. They froze to make themselves less desirable to the predators. Once the predators left, they “thaw” from their frozen state and shake off the fear. Things go back to normal very quickly for them.
Humans, on the other hand, have a habit of suppressing and numbing our emotions. We dissociate from our body and hence, the emotions are stuck in our body and not processed. So when you are having anxiety, it’s actually a good opportunity for you to release the stuck energy in your body.
Mindfulness helps us to be more grounded in our bodies so that when we experience bodily sensations like this, we can observe and release them. To make this part of your habit, associate mindfulness with anxiety. Bring your attention to your body immediately whenever you notice that you are feeling anxious.
5. Assure yourself that you can handle it.
Anxiety is caused by uncertainties. It’s a way we protect ourselves from threats. But why do other people who face the same uncertainty don’t experience anxiety?
It all boils down to one underlying belief, “I can’t handle it.” If you believe you can’t handle the changes that the threat brings, then you will become fearful and anxious. But if you believe you can handle whatever life throws at you even when you don’t know what it is, then there will be no fear or anxiety at all. Then, there will be no need to protect yourself.
Don’t underestimate your ability to adapt as a human.
There’s always a steep learning curve and some stress when we deal with something new. But this doesn’t mean that we are incapable or incompetent in handling a new situation. It just means that we are adjusting and adapting ourselves to the changes. It takes time to get used to the new situation.
About a month ago, I was crossing the overhead bridge and I saw a blind lady in front of me crossing the bridge on her own with a walking stick. I was amazed by her patience as I observed how she maneuvered across the bridge and the road. I wondered if I were blind, will I be able to do the same too?
Then, two weeks later, I saw a comment left by a blind person on a coronavirus video. She said that it’s fascinating how the pandemic is forcing the sighted people to have a taste of isolation, something that the blind community had already been experiencing. But she said that we will adapt to the situation just like every person she has met who has lost their vision. That’s what humans do.
She’s right! Humans adapt. Just look at where you were ten years ago and where you are now. How did you overcome the challenge you initially thought that you can’t handle? Look at the things that you had learned and the skills that you had acquired over the years. How did you do that? How did you know how to use the smartphone and the new technology?
Whenever you are feeling anxious, tap into the stillness that mindfulness brings and keep reassuring yourself that you can overcome any challenges. It will calm down your anxiety responses.
At the end of the day, it’s not the uncertainty that is threatening. It’s the lack of trust in your capability and the Universe that is causing the panic. When you are mindful of your hidden belief and know that everything will be okay eventually, you will feel safe even in this time of uncertainty.
Featured Photo Credit: Kat Jayne