When I first started learning about mindfulness, it felt like such a breath of fresh air to discover you don’t always have to buy into what your thoughts are telling you. That your thoughts are just images and words in your mind, and no matter how scary or worrisome they may be, they can’t hurt you and you don’t have to be controlled by them.
It was so liberating.
My new mindful approach helped me develop a much more positive outlook on life and I felt able to cope with worries that I wouldn’t have dealt with so easily before. But something that still bothered me was my anxiety attacks. Mindfulness encourages being present and fully in the moment, but during my anxiety attacks I would think ‘I am in the moment and in this moment I’m anxious, that’s the problem!’
It took me a long time to understand how during my attacks, I was focussing all my attention on my anxious thoughts rather than what was happening in the here and now. This meant I wasn’t actually in the moment, I was wrapped up in my thoughts.
It took a lot of effort to start shifting my attention back to the moment during anxiety attacks and I’ve had to experiment to find what works for me. When I start to panic, I’ll shift my attention to sensations I can feel against my skin, especially my fingertips. I’ll put my feet flat on the floor (as I do when I meditate) and focus on how the soles of my feet feel against the ground. I’ll look out for details of what I can see, noting them as I go along. I’ll focus on my breath and make a conscious effort to stop it going shallow. Slowly, the panic begins to subside. And no matter how many times my mind tries to take me back to the anxious thoughts, I bring my attention back to the moment each time.
Mindfulness helps you to notice the sensations going on in your body and to recognise when you’re starting to feel symptoms of stress and anxiety. Through learning about this, I began to realise that because I was so averse to feeling anxious, any hint of a physical symptom of stress within me could set off the start of an attack. Things like feeling a spot of dizziness, feeling hot, faster heart beat, sweating, feelings of nausea or ‘knots’ in my stomach. And this would be the case for me even if these symptoms weren’t caused by stress e.g. I might just feel hot because the room is hot, or my heart rate might be faster because I just came back from a walk, but I’d start worrying it was the start of anxiety and would spiral from there.
This is where the acceptance aspect of mindfulness has had a big impact for me. I began to experiment with focusing on the sensations and exploring them non-judgementally and with a sense of curiosity. I’ve found when I’m not stressing over wanting the sensations to go away, they fade quite a lot anyway. They’re still there, but I can just keep them in the background while I focus on the moment at hand. I’ve learnt that eventually they always pass. I’ve learnt to even embrace some of the sensations and they no longer even bother me, and I wonder why I ever reacted so negatively to them.
Don’t get me wrong, I still get anxiety attacks and I’m not always able to deal with them as well as I’d like. Mindfulness is something I really do have to practice. It’s surprising how much I forget otherwise and I end up slipping back into troublesome thought patterns – and when I get sucked into them, they really do feel real! But I don’t beat myself up over this. I’ve made so much progress and this has halted a problem that was beginning to take over my life.
I’d like to end on a mindful quote, which I relate to because of the way it has helped me to deal with anxiety attacks;
“You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
By Hayley Williams, Valleys Steps Volunteer