“Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.” — German Proverb
Constant worry can become chronic, affecting your relationships, health and finances. It’s unhelpful baggage to carry around when all you want is peace in your life. Mindful Meditation, with its now respected credentials from the medical world could offer you a simple way to make peace with constant worry.
While most worries begin with ‘what-if’ thoughts, they have the habit of becoming full-blown advertisements warning of danger up ahead. With the volume turned up and sirens blaring, what began as a worrying thought can feel like you’ve been taken hostage by your mind.
How Your Body Responds To Worry
No wonder your body gets involved when constant worry feels like it’s taking over your life. Your body reacts to constant worry (which it interprets as fear), by setting itself on high alert because cortisol is released, keeping you in an elevated state of ‘panic’.
If unchecked, your body will react in unhealthy ways. You’ll notice less energy, less interest in things you used to enjoy and feel powerless over your emotions as they spin out of control. If this state becomes your new normal, your health may decline with studies linking stress and worry with heart disease, depression, panic disorder and burnout — among others.
Worry Can Impact Finances, Relationships and Health
Once this happens, your ability to work at your best diminishes and the stress of meeting deadlines, managing challenging personalities and coping with day-to-day problems drop. Fear of losing your job adds another layer to your escalating worry scale.
If in a relationship, it doesn’t take long for your partner to notice. Yet few partners are mind readers. They see your behaviour, not what’s caused it. It can be challenging describing what’s going on because there doesn’t seem to be ‘one thing’ you can point at as the culprit. Self-blame kicks in with phrases like: “It’s all in your mind”. Nobody understands what’s going on. No one gets the constant torment that’s numbing you.
What Researchers Say About Worry
From a study of 57 participants who listed worrying thoughts in a diary for 7 days, researchers categorized the findings:
- 48% reflected a problem-solving process
- 17% anticipating future negative outcomes
- 11% ruminating
- 5% self-blame
Not surprisingly, the results showed that worry involved ‘attempting’ to solve a problem and may be a failure ‘to bring problem solving to a satisfactory conclusion’.
Why Self-Help Therapy Doesn’t Work
Most people experiencing constant worry, stress or anxiety begin with a little self-help therapy: alcohol, food, sex, binging on Netflix series, drugs (among others).
If you talk to friends about the problem, you’ll probably be advised to ‘get outside and go for a walk’ — yes, great advice — but not all problems can be resolved with a nice brisk walk.
If you’re ready to do something different, mindfulness is a good place to begin. It’s proven to be a positive way forward for many people experiencing the insidious side-effects of constant worry, stress or anxiety.
Why Is Mindfulness Popular?
Mindfulness was brought to the West mainly through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a former molecular biologist who’d been practicing meditation since his grad school days in the 1960s. Working at University Massachusetts Medical School, Kabat-Zinn wondered how many patients left the hospital still having to manage their pain. After talking with surgeons, they estimated about 80% of people suffering chronic pain continued to suffer after leaving hospital.
Kabat-Zinn used his knowledge of mindfulness meditation, knowing how helpful it had been for him and established an 8-week Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) in the hospital basement. Its successful outcomes have spawned versions of this program in hospitals world wide.
What Is Mindfulness?
As Jon Kabat-Zinn describes so well: “Mindfulness means paying attention on purpose”.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
Yet the problem with ‘paying attention’ involves our thoughts. They don’t stop. While this is normal, we’ve allowed our mind to be like that of a young child, flitting from one thing to another when something new catches its eye.
The adult version of this is letting our mind binge on old reel-to-reel movies of events in our life, dredging up old memories, daydreaming and letting random thoughts distract us from being present.
I know this state well. Reading a book, I can be halfway through a chapter before realising I’ve been thinking about a problem or work. I’ve mechanically been present, but mindlessly absent. I’m sure you can relate.
How Can You Be Mindful?
- It begins with training your mind to focus.
- It continues with noticing when your mind wanders.
- And, it’s intentionally bringing your thoughts back to the original focus with compassion.
Most mindfulness practices begin with settling your body. That means getting comfortable in your chair. (While you can lay on the floor or on your bed — this exercise is not about relaxing to the point of sleeping. It’s about ‘training your mind’, and that needs you to be actively involved.)
1. Begin by getting comfortable.
Straighten your back. Have your feet on the floor so you can feel the ground (or floor covering) beneath you. Place your hands on your lap or somewhere comfortable.
2. Notice your body senses
Notice your sitting bones touching the chair. Sense your clothing touching your body.
If in a private place, close your eyes as this reduces distraction from visual stimuli (alternatively focus on a spot on the opposite wall).
3. Focus on your breathing
Focus on your breathing. Don’t try to change your breathing. Simply notice it.
Breath in, breath out.
Breath in, breath out.
Continue this for one minute. (Next time you practice this aim to increase the time you spend noticing your breath Aim for about 3 minutes.)
4. Notice the quality of your breathing
As you’re sitting still noticing your breathing, pay attention to the quality of your breath — is it deep or shallow? Is cool or warm air flowing through your nostrils? Where do you feel the air touching your throat as it enters your body?
5. Notice when your mind wanders
While you’re doing this, you may notice your mind wandering. That’s normal.
Simply notice that you’re having thoughts other than your breathing, imagine them floating away from you, and then return to noticing your breath.
As you become more comfortable doing this exercise, you can use it to centre yourself whenever you’re noticing ‘worry’ arise — either in your mind or your body.
You can do this exercise at work or at home. It’s a simple tool to carry with you.
How Mindfulness Needs Curiosity
While mindfulness is about ‘paying attention on purpose’, an essential element involves curiosity. If you can be curious about your breath and its quality, then you can begin expanding your awareness and be more curious about your world around you.
The more you can deepen this practice, the more you are preparing your mind to reach higher levels of thinking — rather than re-running old reel-to-reel movies backwards and forwards in your mind — and hoping they ended differently.
As the researchers say: Worry is an attempt to solve a problem. When you know how to think and solve problems in better ways, you can ditch constant worry.