How can we stop anxious thoughts from spiralling out of control?

Anxiety losing controlClinical psychologists Sue Knowles and Bridie Gallagher discuss mindfulness as a way to relieve stress and anxiety.  Their article has been adapted from their new book, My Anxiety Handbook: Getting Back on Track, which provides young people with guidance on how to recognise and manage anxiety’s difficulties. The book is co-written by a young person with anxiety, Phoebe McEwen.

Do you ever feel like your mind is full of worries about what’s happening in the past or could in the future?  Sometimes we have so many things in our minds that it can seem like never-ending noise, a whirlwind or even a washing machine!

Mindfulness is a technique that helps us to calm our thoughts and focus on the present moment.  This means that we try to think about the here and now, and not the past or future.  If thoughts are racing around your mind, you may feel anxious, worried, overwhelmed or stressed.  It can be useful to take some time just to “be aware” in the present moment, accepting what is happening around you.  Mindfulness is quite different from relaxation, although it can lead to you feeling more relaxed.  With mindfulness, the goal is to focus your mind and be more aware of what you are experiencing; whereas with relaxation, the goal is simply to relax or release a tense body or mind.

To observe the present moment fully, you should try to be aware of your five senses.  Try to think of what you are noticing as if it’s a brand-new experience.  So you might ask yourself, “What can I hear?  Smell?  Taste? See? Feel?”  During this act of mindfulness, any thoughts that pass into your head should be acknowledged and accepted, but not thought about or acted on (allow them to drift in and out of your mind).  Bring yourself back to the present moment gently, try not to be too hard on yourself.  Don’t judge your thoughts as “good” or “bad” – they just “are”.  Mindfulness is a different way of dealing with anxious thoughts and feeling from CBT, as when we are being mindful we accept and let go of thoughts, rather than catching and evaluating them.  If we keep our attention on, and accept what is happening in the moment, it can lead us to feel calmer, and more in control.  We can then learn to respond in a more helpful way to what is happening around us.

As well as anxiety, mindfulness can help with:

  • low mood / feeling sad
  • anger
  • relationship problems
  • stress
  • physical difficulties and pain (even cold and flu!).

Perhaps one of the most important things about mindfulness is that it takes practice.  You might not get it quite right the first time, or the second, but if you keep practising you will find that you can do it more easily and that it starts to help.  Don’t feel that you have failed if you don’t do it perfectly the first few times – no one does!

One of the most common mindfulness exercises is mindful breathing.  This can particularly help with anxiety, as it helps to slow your breathing and calm you down:

  1. Get into a comfortable position lying on your back or sitting. If you are sitting, keep your back straight and let your shoulders slowly drop.  Make sure that you feel comfortable.
  2. Feel your eyelids become heavy and gently close your eyes if it feels comfortable. If not, lightly rest your gaze on a point in the room and retain soft focus.
  3. Bring your attention to your breathing, breathing in slowly… and out slowly.
  4. Now bring your attention to your stomach, feeling it rise gently as you breathe out. Keep the focus on you breathing, being with each in-breath and with each out-breath.
  5. Every time you notice that your mind has wandered off the breath, notice what it was that took you away. Then gently and compassionately bring your attention back to the feeling of the breath coming in and out of your body. Don’t judge the thought, just let it be.

If your mind wanders away from the breath many times, then your job is simply to gently bring your attention back to the breath every time.

Practise this exercise daily.  See how it feels to spend some time each day just being with your breath without having to do anything.

Two of the main things that can get in the way of doing mindfulness are distractions and thoughts.  Everyone has unhelpful or difficult thoughts at times.  When these thoughts start to build up, they can make you feel stressed our out of control, like the world is on your shoulders or your head is going to explode!  Sometimes people want to push the unhelpful thoughts away and might try to block them out or ignore them.

This doesn’t work.  For example, if you try to block out a thought about a pink elephant (try it for 30 seconds) … what happens? You start to think about a pink elephant even more!

Other people may try to focus on the thoughts, but this can lead to over-thinking and spirals of negative thoughts – worrying about worrying.

The important thing to remember is that our thoughts and worries are just thoughts and worries – they’re not facts.  We do not need to act on our thoughts and we can choose to just notice them.  If we can notice and accept our thoughts, then we can just “let them be” – not trying to control them, but just noticing that they are there.

Use code MAH for a 10% discount when you order this book from our website before the 20th April.

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