As Sophia came into my office she said, “I don’t know what’s going on, but in the past few days I’ve been feeling miserable. My arms and legs are tense, my fingers and toes are numb, my stomach is in constant pain, and I feel like two walls are crushing my head on each side. My face feels like a dripping faucet of sweat and my heart is ready to jump out of my body anytime.”
As I spoke with her, it was evident she was experiencing a severe anxiety episode that was lasting too long. She said she didn’t understand why it was happening; she denied having negative thoughts and was having a difficult time speaking. I had previously taught her some basic Mindfulness exercises and suggested we do them right then. We began with deep breathing as she sat on the couch crying. Slowly her face and demeanor began to change. As her thinking brain began to function better, she began to speak her mind. Her words indicated catastrophic and negative thinking. Then she said, “I hate anxiety, I just want it gone!”
When my clients come to see me they often say, “Relaxation exercises don’t work for me. Is there anything else I can do to get rid of anxiety?” I have a talk with them to help them shift their focus of treatment. I explain that the “relaxation” exercises probably won’t work if they do them with the goal of “getting rid” of anxiety. They stare at me in confusion, but then recognize what they’ve been doing hasn’t worked.
The paradox If someone asks you to not think of pink elephants, what do you do? Most likely you will think of pink elephants because in order to NOT think about them, you actually have to picture them in your mind before discarding them. This applies equally to “getting rid of anxiety.” When you say: “I’ve got to do my relaxation exercises, so my anxiety will go away.” Or “I’ve got to do this to calm down; I’ve got to do that to relax!” The more you want anxiety to disappear, the more you think about it. You’ll feel overwrought because you are so engrossed on it being gone! You are too uptight doing the “relaxation” skills because you want them to work so desperately.
Don’t relax, be mindful I teasingly tell my clients that “relaxation” is a bad word while they are in treatment. I remind them that it hasn’t worked for them yet. I teach them instead to be mindful. They may notice some “relaxation” exercises may be similar to mindfulness exercises. However, the goal is different. When I teach my clients about mindfulness exercises, they learn that they purposely can pay attention to the present moment and accept what is — without making any judgments. They need to practice the skills so they notice their thoughts, feelings, and sensations without making an effort to change them or give them a meaning.
Change the wording Clients learn about some of the basic brain structures and functions involved with anxiety. I help them understand how mindfulness will be utilized. I encourage them to change their attitude and wording. Then they can visualize how either the breathing or muscle exercises will explicitly send the message to their brain. I suggest they say something like: “I will do my mindfulness exercises so that my ‘brain’s danger alarm” gets the message that there is no real danger to my life at this time.” As they do the skills (without wishing to get rid of anxiety), their “brain’s danger detector” will reset instead of flare up like it has done in the past.
You can do it too! If you have anxiety challenges, the concept of not wishing anxiety away will be very difficult to accept and understand. However, experts and researchers on anxiety disorders confirm this is the key to success in treatment. Unfortunately, if it were easier, you wouldn’t be looking for answers. It’s more difficult than just saying, “Okay, I won’t wish it away.” Your therapist will teach and guide you with skills so that you can eventually comprehend this concept, practice it, and yes — get it! It takes time, practice and the right skills.
Mindfulness is only part of the treatment I implement when treating anxiety disorders. When clients incorporate mindfulness into their everyday routine, they find it can make a significant difference in their lives. Why don’t you try it?
Information on mindfulness is abundant. Your therapist can be your main resource for books and websites, but you may wish to start here: