Mindfulness is the process of being present-focused (which means attending to the moment and not being pulled away by worries or regrets), non-judgmental (observing and describing our experiences), and accepting (not actively struggling against your experience). The great news is that you don’t need to spend a lot of time to practice mindfulness.
Research shows that there are many benefits to practicing mindfulness, including:
- Giving yourself a moment to pause before reacting (having a greater awareness and ability to step back from your thoughts)
- Reduced activity in your amygdala, which contributes to decreased stress
- A calmer mind, which can help you process emotions differently and can change your attitudes towards stress
- Greater sense of care and compassion towards yourself and others
- Increased muscle relaxation, slower heart rate, improved immune functioning and more
- Better memory and improved focus
There are many different techniques for meditation and mindfulness exercises, including the following:
- Standing meditation: Imagine a tree standing beside you. Breathing deeply, feel your feet rooted into the ground. Imagine the depth of the roots and the strength under you, supporting you. Imagine your body a solid trunk, but one that is flexible and giving. Allow it to sway, slightly bending in the breeze, your arms open like branches, your hands turned like leaves towards the sun. Breathe deeply and think about the strength and beauty of the tree. Feel the depth of the ground and all its support.
- Falling leaf: Stare at a point on the wall across from you. Visualize a leaf on this spot. With each breath, count backwards from 20 to 1 as you watch the leaf slowly drifting to the ground. At 1, the leaf reaches the ground and you are deeply relaxed.
- Ten candles: Close your eyes and imagine a row of ten lit candles in front of you, any style or colour. As you exhale, imagine yourself blowing out one of the candles. With each successive breath, blow out each candle. Let yourself become more deeply relaxed with each one. When all the candles are out, let yourself enjoy the peace and quiet of the room.
- Try an app: There are many apps out that can help you with guided meditation. Try some of our favourites, like Calm; My Life; Insight Timer; or Headspace.
- Try a Mind Body Run/Walk: A virtual mindful running and walking program to help you to keep physically and mentally healthy.
- Practice Yoga: Yoga and mindfulness go hand in hand, plus you’ll get the added stress-busting bonus of physical activity as well. Many yoga classes encourage participants to let go of thoughts that are bothering and end with a period of stillness and meditation. Focusing on the movement of your body and your breathing, instead of your worries and to do lists, can help you calm your mind and let go of thoughts that are unhelpful. Athletics and Recreation has online yoga classes multiple times a week.
- Listen to a guided meditation or relaxation track on YouTube: There are lots of meditation and relaxation exercises out there on YouTube. Most are five to ten minutes and can be used to slow your breathing and relax your body and mind. Because they are so short, you could build them into your routine by listening to one when you wake up in the morning and another before you go to bed at night. You could try a guided imagery exercise, a mindful breathing exercise, a 5,4,3,2,1 exercise, or a cognitive defusion exercise from one of our workshops and seminars. Or find some others from the vast variety out there online, but make sure to choose one that really speaks to you.
Meditation and mindfulness practices work best if you are able to do them regularly. Even if you aren’t particularly anxious or stressed out right now, meditating in times of calm can make it easier for you to deal with times of high stress. There are many different recordings of mindfulness and meditation exercises out there, and some can be found in apps or in online videos.
Bourne, Edmund J. “The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook.” New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Oakland, California, 2005.
Visualize a Happy Memory
Think about a time in your life that something good happened. It could be a birthday or a vacation, a fun time out with friends or family, or maybe just a time you felt truly relaxed and at ease. Focus your mind on that experience for a moment. Try to relive that moment using all of your senses:
- What did you hear?
- What did you touch?
- What did you smell?
- What did you see?
- What did you taste?
Our imaginations can be very powerful and the imagery that our minds conjure can be very emotionally persuasive. When we are anxious this can work to our disadvantage, causing us to imagine the worst case scenario in vivid detail and increasing our anxiety symptoms. Research suggests that imagery can activate the same areas of the brain that are activated by our actual experiences. So how can we use imagery to our advantage?
When you imagine something going horribly wrong, it can feel as though it has actually gone horribly wrong, leading to increased anxiety and tension. But the reverse is true as well. If you can immerse yourself and imagine something positive and relaxing, then your imagination can contribute to feeling less stressed and more relaxed.
How this strategy works: Imagining yourself successfully doing the activity or navigating the situation can boost your confidence and positive expectations. Visualize yourself slowly and successfully mastering situations where you anticipate feeling anxious. You can do this before you enter anxiety-provoking situation or while you are in the midst of it.
Example 1: If you are about to write an exam and you are worried about failing and all of the potential implications of failing, imagine yourself being able to answer every question and finishing the exam with confidence. Imagine yourself handing in your exam sheet to the proctor with every question completed and the elation you will feel at a job well done. Imagine yourself leaving the exam and rewarding yourself with some type of treat that appeals to you.
Example 2: If you are in a situation where you are experiencing symptoms of panic, instead of imagining the worst case scenario, imagine yourself calming down and being able to continue along in your day. What would it feel like to calm your body and your mind? Imagine yourself walking into your next class or task feeling completely calm. How would your body feel? What would a panic-free class look like for you?
When you are experiencing anxiety, your thoughts can get into a cycle of worries which can often exacerbate your anxious feelings. When you are in the anxiety cycle, the anxiety can lead you to overestimate the likelihood of bad events and negative consequences. Sometimes these thoughts are based on past negative experiences, but past negative experiences are not necessarily predictive of the future. For example, just because someone treated you poorly once, does not mean all others will treat you poorly in the future, or just because you failed a test once does not mean you will fail every future test.
So how do you change the way you think and break out of the worry cycle? It takes time and practice to develop a different lens through which to view the world, but it can be done and in doing so you can reduce your anxiety. You can start by learning to:
- Recognize when you are thinking anxiously or negatively
- Identify ways in which your negative thoughts might not be accurate
- Actively challenge negative, anxious thoughts and emphasize more balanced ways of thinking
There are several strategies you can use to develop more balanced thinking, but keep the following things in mind as you go:
- Writing thoughts down helps you process them in the beginning. As you get more practised at identifying your negative thoughts you won’t need to write them down as often as you’ll be able to process them more quickly and move to a more balanced mindset.
- Developing these skills takes time. At first you might find you don’t believe the positive thoughts you take time to develop. However, your belief in your negative thoughts is due to lots of practice over time and it will take time and practice before you value the balanced thoughts in the same way.
- The goal is not to develop equally inaccurate, super-positive thoughts either. The goal is balance. When considering a thought, ask yourself if it is possible that a negative belief and a positive belief about a situation can both be true. For example, is it possible to be rejected by a romantic partner and still have people in your life who love and value you?
- It is easier to practice these skills when you aren’t in a state of distress. When your anxiety is quite high, look towards relaxation strategies first.
Challenging Your Thoughts
There are different types of questions you can ask yourself when you recognize an anxious or overly biased thought.
Brief challenging thinking questions
- Am I being objective?
- Am I looking at the whole picture?
- Is there another explanation?
- Could there be another possibility?
- Is this a helpful way of thinking?
- If what I predict happens, what would that mean to me? What would realistically happen next? How would I cope?
- What is the worst that can happen? What is the best that could happen? What is most likely to happen? (These 3 questions are meant to be asked together – focusing on just the worst possible scenario is not recommended)
Perspective taking questions
- How would someone who isn’t anxious view this same situation?
- How would someone who cares about me view this situation? What would they say to me?
- What would I say to a loved one who was having the same anxious thought?
- What questions would I encourage another person to ask in this situation in order to challenge their thoughts?
Positive coping statements
- I’ve felt anxious like this before, and it goes away with time. This too will pass.
- That’s just my adrenalin kicking in- it will pass.
- I know what is happening in my body. I just need to breathe through it.
- I know what I can do. I’ve dealt with this before.
- I can survive this. I’ve done it before.
- I can’t stop the symptoms this instant and I don’t need to.
Keeping thought records
To understand your anxiety, it is helpful to gain a very good understanding of it. When you can identify the moment-to-moment expressions of your anxiety and follow them through the anxiety cycle, you can start to interrupt them. You can do this by assuming the role of a keen observer of your internal processes. When you can maintain awareness of your thoughts and become skilled at recognizing anxious thoughts, it can be easier to interrupt them. To keep a thought record, follow these steps:
- Note the situation or trigger that activated your anxiety.
- Observe and record your anxious thoughts without judgment.
- Rate how strongly you believe each thought (between 0 – 100).
- Note the emotions and sensations that go with your thoughts and the strength of your emotions (rate each emotion on a scale of 0 – 100).
- List evidence that supports your anxious beliefs and then list the evidence that does not support your anxious thoughts.
- Write down some alternative or balanced thoughts for this situation.
- Rate your emotions after completing this exercise.
After doing these exercises for a while, you’ll be prepared to identify your anxious thoughts and stop them before you get into the worry cycle. These skills take time to develop, so take it easy on yourself as you build up these new ways of thinking. If you’d like to learn more about thought challenging and other strategies for reducing anxiety, try taking our Alleviating Anxiety seminar.
Everyone worries about things sometimes, but anxious people tend to have a lot of worry thoughts. Some worries are helpful (e.g. for planning, motivating action, or considering others’ feelings) and we call these productive worries, but many worries are unproductive (e.g. worries that generate “what ifs” that do not lead to concrete, practical actions). Even when we know our worries are unproductive we can still find ourselves stuck worrying about them.
Unproductive worry is based on three beliefs:
- "If I have worry, then it is important and I should dwell on it"
- "If I have worry, then I need to identify all the possible solutions"
- "I cannot accept uncertainty"
Productive worry involves:
- Identifying a problem that is plausible or reasonable: Ask yourself “Would someone else worry about this? Is it likely to happen?"
- Decide if it’s a problem that you can do something about right now (or very soon): Ask yourself “Is there anything I can do right now?” Productive worries become productive solutions almost immediately.
- Quickly move from worry about the problem to finding solutions to it: Consider if there are plausible and reasonable actions to take
No one can just stop worrying. Trying to do so can actually increase your thinking abut your worrying. Instead, you can find some ways to worry more effectively. Evaluating your thoughts to figure out if your worries are productive or unproductive is a good first step. Once you’ve distinguished what type of worrying you are having, try to let go of unproductive thinking as best you can, using mindfulness or thought redirection. Ask yourself, what would I tell a friend who was having this worry? If you find your worries are productive worries, then set aside some time to turn your worries into problem-solving as soon as you can.
Scheduling Worry Time
If you have lots of these unproductive worries that you can’t take action on right away, try to notice them as they arise and then set them aside (taking a mindful moment can help you set them aside). Then schedule yourself some daily time to worry.
During your scheduled worry time, write down all of these unhelpful worries, allowing yourself to follow them and exhaust all the possible conclusions. If you run out of worries during your worry time, start over at the beginning until you have spent your allotted 15-20 minutes. Repeat your worry time daily for at least two weeks.
Worry time can help you get perspective on your unhelpful worries. Perhaps, you will find ways to turn the unhelpful worries into positive problem solving about actions you can take in the immediate future or you may find that you get bored of your worries or that worrying isn’t as helpful as you thought when you have to dedicate a solid amount of time to your worries each day.
Tip: It is important when you are scheduling your worry time to consider where and when you will worry. Try not to do worry time in your bedroom or just before bed, so that you don’t associate worry with where you sleep.
Thought Probability Challenging
If you are regularly an anxious person, you might spend a lot of time thinking about “what if” questions or scenarios and continuing that thinking to a worst case scenario conclusion. We often start with a situation that might be otherwise ordinary (e.g. stress about an upcoming exam) and magnify the consequences or outcomes in our mind.
Because anxiety inflates the probability of something bad happening and we tend to inflate the probability of consequences we imagine, it can be helpful to step back and examine the actual probabilities of events. Your past positive or neutral experiences can often provide you with more realistic evidence of actual probabilities. When we examine our feared outcomes, we are likely to find our anxiety is generally related to low probability events.
Oftentimes our anxiety centres around a series of events that have to happen in order for our worst feared outcome of consequence to occur. We spend so much time worrying about what could go wrong, without examining each assumption and the more realistic likelihood of each of those things happening.
Example: Think about the worry scenario “I’m going to fail my exams, get kicked out of my program, never be able to get a job, and be destitute.” Now consider the steps that would have to happen to arrive at that end scenario. You would need to 1) not study for any exams, 2) not attend your classes, 3) Know insufficient content for your exams, 4) Actually fail your exams, 5) Not complete your assignments, 6) Receive failing grades on all your courses, 7) Be removed from your program temporarily, 8) Not be able to return to school after your time off, 9) Not be able to secure good references for employment, 10) Not be able to get a job, resulting in destitution.
Think about what the probability of all ten of these steps happening? Or even one?
Think about your personal habits and performance in the past in context with these worries. Work through the probability and apply coping thoughts like the following example:
“I spend a lot of time worrying about this, to the point that it actually interrupts my ability to focus and study. But in order to fail, I actually have to not study at all or attend any classes, and that is very unlikely based on what I know about my habits and past performance. Given my past minimal experience with failure, I know that failing a test isn’t really likely, let alone failing out of my program entirely. It is even less likely that this would lead to all the other fears I have. I know that I will still be able to have a good future and find a job.”
Give Yourself Time
Just like you can’t get fit by going to the gym once, worry strategies take consistent time and practice to implement in your life. If you choose to practice worry time, put a calendar reminder in your phone every day to get yourself in the habit of doing it. For both habits, write “Scheduled worry time” and “Thought probability challenging” in the bottom corner of every week of your planner or bullet journal to remind yourself of these valuable tools when things get busy.