Have you ever taken a step back and objectively observed the contents of your thoughts? Have you ever noticed when you’re thinking and when you’re not thinking? Do you find yourself often daydreaming, completely lost in the contents of your thoughts, unsure as to how to meditate properly?
Is your mind often still, resilient, at peace with that which you cannot control, and therefore anchored in the present moment, unhinged from thoughts about the past for the future? Or is your mind on the opposite end of the spectrum?
Perhaps you find that you immediately start talking to yourself the moment your alarm goes off in the morning. Such mental chatter may be, “Ugh, time to get up and get ready for work. I’m so sleepy. I wish I could just call in sick today. I hope Ashley isn’t working with me. God knows I don’t need to deal with her again today. Why is it so cold in this house? Okay, I’m up. Damn, I have to piss bad.”
For most of us, such idle conversations with oneself occurs on a near constant basis without us ever being consciously aware of it. Most of us wake up talking to ourselves all day long until we finally talk ourselves to sleep at the day’s end. If you think you’re impervious to such mindlessness, then I encourage you to sit back and see how long it takes before a thought pops into your mind.
Suffice to say you’ll be surprised as to how often you catch yourself thinking and talking to yourself, albeit a single image, a single word, or an entire conversation. For most of us, we cannot go very long without thinking about something.
In fact, to go even a solid hour without becoming lost in thought would put you in the same class as some of the most adept yogis and meditators who have ever lived. For a great number of us, when we observe the contents of our minds, we quickly realize how challenging it is to simply focus on the present – that is, to not be lost in thought.
How long do you think you can go without thinking a thought or without talking to yourself? Do you think you can remain anchored in the present moment for 60 uninterrupted seconds? How about for 10 minutes? To truly understand how difficult this experiment really is, I implore you to try it out for yourself.
You may be asking yourself, “What is so bad about thinking?” Well, there isn’t anything wrong with thinking itself, obviously. However, thinking does become a problem when we become completely lost in thought – that is, when we’re thinking without being consciously aware that we’re thinking. This is akin to daydreaming or having your brain on “auto-pilot.”
For example, you may be watching your favorite movie, but as you’re watching it and therefore devoting a portion of your attention to it, you’re also arbitrarily thinking about all the errands you have to run tomorrow, that argument you had with your spouse the other day, those new shoes you want to buy, and what you’re going to eat for dinner after the movie is over.
The content of such idle mental chatter is not necessarily the problem. Rather, it is the idle mental chatter itself that is the problem. When our mind is left untamed – that is, when we do not make active efforts to remain grounded in the present moment, we tend to find ourselves either living in the past by dwelling on past regrets or we may live in the future by dwelling on moments or situations that have not yet happened but that make us anxious.
One of the main problems with being lost in thought (or daydreaming) is that our thoughts often carry with them the baggage of unwanted emotions, such as fear, envy, anger, shame, and guilt. For most of us, we have deadlines to meet, bills that need to be paid, relationships that need to be tended to, desires that need to be either fulfilled or tamed, and much more.
Our complex lives often leave us constantly thinking of ways to fix our many problems so to improve the status quo of our lives. For most people, such willful behavior will do nothing but enhance their mental suffering and decrease their equanimity. For those of us who are anxious, our thoughts appear to never stop.
The more anxious we are, the more worry thoughts we dwell on. This is a vicious cycle that I have found myself in on countless occasions. Before I ever knew what mindfulness meditation was, I did the only thing that made sense to me, which was to think more and more about my problems so to try and figure out a way to fix them. After all, not thinking about them seemed like an unproductive use of my time and made me feel like I was being lazy.
For someone with a highly anxious mind, the arduous efforts I put forth to thwart my suffering did nothing but increase my misery. Mindfulness practice or contemplative practice as it’s also sometimes referred to as can help you to regulate your emotions to a degree in which you may have once thought was impossible. I hope you take relief in knowing that the more you practice being mindful or being in the present moment, the more adept you will be at coping with and relieving your anxiety.
Learning the BASICS of Mindfulness Meditation
Fortunately for us in the West, mindfulness meditation is no longer an esoteric skill used only by enlightened yogis and monks in the Eastern part of the world. It has seeped into the mainstream with prodigious results for those suffering from anxiety and stress. One of the most common ways to meditate is to sit down in a quiet room, close your eyes, and redirect your attention to nothing more than the sensations involved in breathing.
You can focus on the way it feels as your chest rises and falls with each passing breath, noticing the temperature of the cool air entering your nostrils and the warm air existing them, or simply following the breath as it makes its journey through your nose, filling your lungs, only to then be expelled seconds later. This practice can be done for 5 mins, 10 mins, 30 mins, an hour, or longer.
Meditating in the way I have just described is very important for training the mind when stress is present. It is in these moments where you are strengthening the resiliency of your mind so that when you are actually in an anxiety provoking situation, you will be much more adept at coping with the stress associated with it. Although there are many benefits to be obtained by such isolated, silent meditation, the true beauty of mindfulness meditation is that it does not require you to be confined to a chair for 30 minutes at a time.
Although such silent meditation is certainly beneficial and is encouraged, it is not necessary to accrue the benefits I’ve been describing to you. Where the magic truly happens is when you use these skills during stressful situations via the use of your 5 major senses: touch, hearing, sight, taste, and smell.
It is through these senses that you are able to observe the world around you and it is these observations that will allow you to be anchored into the present moment, free from being lost in thought. Before I explain how you can use each of your senses to remain mindfully present and not mindlessly lost in thought, I will first talk about the vital importance of being nonjudgmental or objective during your meditation practice.
It doesn’t matter how trivial the object of attention is, whether it be mindfully noticing the points of contact as your body rests in a chair or the way your chest rises and falls with each passing breath, judging your experience as “good” or “bad” is the best way to ensure that your mind will go down the rabbit hole of discursive thought, only to prolong your suffering, regardless of how miniscule that suffering may be. Why is this the case?
Well, when we make a judgement about something, that judgement is almost always followed by thoughts that reinforce the judgement made. This means that more and more judgments will follow the initial one. Such mental chatter often occurs with the lights off, meaning that it occurs unconsciously without your conscious awareness.
This is what it is like to be lost in thought, trapped in a mind-loop where one judgmental thought feeds off of the previous one in a near never ending cycle that usually ends with you thinking of something that had absolutely nothing to do with the initial thought. These judgmental thoughts carry with them a great deal of emotional baggage.
Unwanted emotions such as anger, shame, and jealousy, are but a few of many other emotions that are infamously known to arise when someone is making a judgement about oneself or of another person.
Although being judgmental is clearly an inexorable characteristic of human beings – regardless of how sanctimoniously ostentatious some people are when they claim to never be judgmental – we can still do our best to be consciously aware when we are being judgmental so that we can then go back to observing our point of focus objectively, not subjectively.
This is exactly the course of action you should take when you do inevitably judge some aspect of your mindfulness practice. I say inevitably because it is in our nature to do this, and that’s okay.
When you’re meditating and you notice that you’re judging some aspect of your practice, realize that the moments in which that conversation with yourself is occurring – that is, when judgmental ideas and images arise in thought – you are no longer being mindful. The instant you break concentration from your point of focus when being mindful is the moment you enter into the realm of idle chit chat with you as the sole interlocutor.
How to Meditate Using Your Sense of TOUCH
Although our sense of touch is one of our most important senses, we often fail to recognize how useful a tool it is at helping us to remain anchored in the present moment. As I type the words you’re now reading in this sentence, I am consciously aware of the many sensations I feel on each of my 10 fingertips as each one presses on the various keys on my laptop. This is a perfect example of using your sense of touch to remain present.
To be mindful by using your sense of touch, you need only direct your attention to a specific point of focus. This can be focusing on the sensations of the soles of your feet as you walk, or it can be noticing the weight of a glass as you drink from it. Being aware of such trivial things means that you are experiencing the physical world around you with undivided attention.
The antithesis of this would be you walking or drinking from a glass while being completely lost in thought about how you wish you had a different job, how you wish you would have treated your ex better, or some other arbitrary desire or regret.
When we are in such a mindless state of mind, we miss out on the experiences that occur in the here and now. Sure, we may be physically there, but we are often not psychologically there. Using your sense of touch is one of the most effective ways at helping you to be present and therefore helping you to relieve any unnecessary anxiety that you would have otherwise experienced.
Some other examples of ways you can use your sense of touch to help you to be more mindful is to notice the points of contact as you sit down in a chair. While sitting, nonjudgmentally redirect your attention to the way the soles of your feet feel as they make contact with the floor. Notice the way your thighs and buttocks feel as gravity pulls your body downward into the chair. When you are practicing mindfulness meditation in this way, there is absolutely no room whatsoever for fear thoughts to be entertained.
You only have so much attention to give, and if your attention is completely fixated on your tactile senses, then there won’t be any additional space left in your mind to be attentive to worry thoughts.
Sure, thoughts may arbitrarily pop in and out of your mind during your mindfulness meditation practice, but such occurrences are inevitable. It is only when we become lost in thought – that is, when we are thinking without being aware that we are thinking – when we open the flood gates to experiencing an influx of unwanted emotions, such as fear, anger, and shame.
You can use your sense of touch to increase your equanimity in what appears to be in an infinite amount of ways, such as by noticing the way it feels as you grip the steering wheel when driving or by making a conscious effort to notice the way your skin feels as the warm water in the shower makes contact with it. There truly is an exorbitant amount of ways you can use your sense of touch to help you remain present.
How to Meditate Using Your Sense of HEARING
Our sense of hearing is another very important sense that we often take for granted. We often drown out most of the sounds around us in any given situation as our thoughts, ideas, and emotions oftentimes steal away our attention. This truly is a shame because by doing so, we are missing out on untapped reservoirs of equanimity.
Unless you are in a soundproof room, you will not have an issue finding sounds around you to redirect your attention to. It is also pertinent to note that using your sense of hearing for meditative purposes does not require nor does it encourage you to actively seek out sounds around you. Instead, you should simply take on the role of “the observer of sounds.” Simply sit back and nonjudgmentally observe the many sounds in your environment, from loud to faint.
One of the simplest sounds you can use to redirect your attention can be the sound of air as it passes in and out of your nostrils when breathing. This subtle noise is a perfect point of focus for you to devote your full undivided attention to as it will exist for as long as you yourself will exist. Retrospectively, upon practicing this for yourself, you will notice that in the moments you were truly attentive to the sounds made during breathing, emotions like anxiety, guilt, and anger were completely absent.
Other sounds with which you can use as tools to help anchor you into the present moment can be the sounds made during busy traffic, the background noise of commerce as you sit down for a cup of coffee at your local coffee shop, the sound of the wind as it combs through the trees, birds chirping, raindrops falling on the ground, music playing, food sizzling as it cooks, and so on ad infinitum.
When you walk outside and decide you are going to do your absolute best to use your sense of hearing to be mindful, it truly is a remarkable experience to have as you become aware of sounds that you were not aware even existed.
Instead of trying to stop thoughts from occurring, which is impossible, you are instead encouraged to redirect your attention away from your worry thoughts toward something that does not have any emotional baggage attached to it, such as nonjudgmentally observing the sounds around you in your environment.
How to Meditate Using Your Sense of SIGHT
Your sense of sight may be one of the more obvious senses that you can use to help you remain mindful. Be that as it may, we often do not think about using our sense of sight to help anchor us into the present moment. Why is this the case? It may be because we are often trapped in the habit of describing to ourselves whatever it is we are looking at with a sort of vacuous automaticity. Such descriptions that we tell ourselves are usually laced with judgements of some sort, albeit good or bad ones.
For example, we may see a puppy at the park and automatically think to ourselves, “How adorable! Look at the little guy. He looks so happy just playing in the grass. What life must be like to be so carefree and mirthful. I sure do wish I had a dog. I know I can’t afford it though. Ugh, when will I ever get a break?” This is a perfect example of how thinking “happy thoughts” can often go awry.
Sure, not all of our thoughts will end up in a dark place, but for most of us, we are in a constant state of deep desire to improve the status quo of our lives. Such deep inclinations will often arise in thought merely as a consequence of the intense emotions that are associated with those desires, as well as the sheer repetition with which we so often remind ourselves of our many flaws and shortcomings.
With regards to the foregoing example, it would be much more productive to simply observe the puppy in an objective and nonjudgmental way. You can do this by simply observing the many colors on the dog’s coat, the behaviors it’s exhibiting as it plays, and the shapes of its body as it moves from one angle to the next from your perspective.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing something like this, then rest assure there are countless other things you can redirect your attention toward in private to help you relieve anxiety and stress by using your sense of sight.
One of the best ways to practice using your sense of sight to be mindful is to nonjudgmentally observe a photograph. The point of focus can be a large framed picture on a wall, a picture in a magazine, or a picture on your phone. The source doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you find a visual that you can focus on.
To start such a practice, find a quiet room and a chair to sit in with a picture you’d wish to meditate on. Remember to remain nonjudgmental as you observe the many colors, textures, shapes, and images in the photo. Try tracing certain shapes with your eyes and notice how certain colors dissipate into other colors.
If you find your mind wandering during your practice, that’s okay. Just gently go back to observing the picture in front of you.
The next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, try using your sense of sight to lock onto an object with which to devote your attention to. While observing the object nonjudgmentally, it will allow your anxiety to dissipate as your attention will not be spent on dwelling on irrational fear thoughts, but rather it will be focused on observing the object, whatever that may be.
This is useful because when looking at physical objects nonjudgmentally, there is absolutely no emotional baggage attached to them, unlike our thoughts, which carry with them an army of unwanted emotions and unpleasant feelings.
How to Meditate Using Your Sense of TASTE
Eating delicious foods is one of the most pleasurable experiences in life as it is often associated with feelings of joy and contentment. When taken to the extreme however, we become gluttons, often using food as a way to ease the pain and struggles associated with life. However, when we decide to no longer be mindless drones when we chomp away during lunch by eating mindfully, we allow ourselves to truly be in the present moment.
Many of you may feel as though you have absolutely no problem whatsoever with tasting your food or enjoying the experience of eating. This is not the point. Rather, I’m professing that by redirecting your full undivided attention to the way your food tastes and feels as you eat, it will allow you to enter into a state of equanimity that simply cannot exist when eating mindlessly, or unconsciously.
This is because when we sit down and eat a meal, the background mental chatter radiating from the corners of our mind does not stop. We continue to think and think about one trivial thing after another ad nauseum.
Sure, there may be moments that last a second or two when our attention is completely captivated by the pleasure we’re experiencing from the flavors in the food we’re eating. However, the problem here is that the moment when our attention is no longer fixated on the way our food tastes, we go right back to thinking again, thinking about problems, deadlines, and desires.
This transition takes no effort on our part as it happens unconsciously with near instant automaticity. Even if we’re eating the most delicious food we’ve ever eaten in our entire lives, we will only experience a scintilla of the equanimity that such a food can procure for us because we simply cannot stop thinking and thinking.
If you’re convinced that the acquisition of such a skill is simply not worth your trouble or that I’m putting forth a solution to a non-problem, then I encourage you to try the following exercise when you have your next meal: From the moment you take your first bite of food until the second you swallow your last bite, pay close attention to the state of your mind and what your attention is focused on. See how long it takes you before you have a thought or before you become completely lost in thought.
Do you think you can go one entire bite of food without having a single thought? How about two bites? Even when you try your absolute best to remain completely attentive to the flavors and textures of your food, you will eventually become completely lost in thought about things that have occurred in the past or about things that have not yet happened in the future.
How to Meditate Using Your Sense of SMELL
Your sense of smell may be the least important sense you have, and I will admit that I myself do not often use it as a tool to remain mindful. This is not because I don’t find it to be a useful way to meditate, but rather it’s because I much prefer to use my tactile and auditory senses as I find it much easier to be mindful when using them, as opposed to other senses.
This is just my own personal preference, so don’t let this scare you away from using your sense of smell to help you to be present. The point of focus with which you can devote your attention to while using your sense of smell can be anything that gives off an aroma. Axiomatically, you would not want to subject yourself to an offensive odor, as this would almost immediately cause you to react to it in a judgmental way. And as I already touched upon, being judgmental is one of absolute best ways to sabotage any chances you may have at truly being in the present moment.
So, while remaining nonjudgmental to the best of your ability, you can use a lit candle or a warm meal as the point of focus with which to direct your attention toward. Regardless of whatever aroma you decide to observe, the way in which you will go about it will not change. All that is required of you to reap the benefits of this practice is to take notice and become interested in the unique aromas you experience. Simply observe whatever it is that you smell without judging it as being “good” or “bad.”
Some other examples of objects that have strong aromas with which you can use your sense of smell to be mindful of are flowers, perfume, freshly cut grass, the beach, leather, or coffee. Nonjudgmentally observing the aromas given off by any one of those things can allow you to truly be in the present moment and therefore help to reduce your anxiety tenfold.
Although using one sense at a time is very useful to help you to be mindful, it is often much more useful to use multiple senses at once. One of the easiest ways you can utilize all 5 of your main senses to be mindful is when you’re eating.
For example, you can use your sense of taste to observe the many flavors in each bite, your sense of smell to notice the aroma the food gives off, your sense of touch by either holding the food in your hands as you take a bite or by noticing the textures in your mouth as you chew, your sense of sound (i.e. is your food crunchy?), and your sense of sight to observe the colors and shapes of the food.
Another useful way to be mindful while using multiple senses is to go for a walk at the park. Here, you can use your sense of smell to notice the aroma of all of the plant-life surrounding you, your sense of touch as you notice the points of contact at the bottom of your feet as you take each step from your heels to your toes, your sense of sound as you hear the tree’s rustling in the wind or nearby birds signing, and your sense of sight as you notice the bright colors of green and blue, the glimmering of a pond nearby, or any wildlife that catches your eye.
Upon reading this article, you may have noticed that I have made it a point to occasionally remind you that you indeed will eventually fail when attempting to remain mindful. So, I will succinctly address a handful of concerns you may be having as a result of that sentiment. Perhaps some of you are inclined to ask me, “Well, if it is inevitable that we will become lost in thought even if we try our hardest to be mindful, then what is the point of even trying?”
My answer to this would be that the point of mindfulness meditation is not to stop thoughts or to stop you from thinking about things. It is instead a skill that can help you to more easily extinguish mindless chit chat with yourself so that you can better experience life in the present moment. A consequence of this is less anxiety and more equanimity.
When we decide each day to make an active effort to not dwell on the past or to not excessively worry about the future, but to instead live in the present moment, then we allow ourselves to experience the peace of mind and stillness that we so deeply desire. Yes, you will eventually become lost in thought when you practice mindfulness meditation. However, the more you practice being mindful, the quicker you will be at noticing when you are lost in thought and the more adept you will be at remaining mindful for longer periods of time.
All that we have and all that we can ever be sure to have is what we can observe in the present moment. We cannot change the past, nor do we know what the future has in store for us. With this being said, spending hours upon hours of brain power anxiously trying to solve problems that may not ever occur is not a productive or healthy use of your time and energy.
With that being said, I understand that constantly worrying about future events may seem like you’re taking an active step at improving the status quo of your life, but there comes a time during such introspection when you are no longer being productive but are instead being willful.
As we think and think and think about our problems all throughout the day, it musters up emotions such as frustration, anger, shame, and guilt. When we’re in a state of high emotionality, our ability to think logically is significantly undermined.
The longer we spend thinking about our many issues and concerns, the more emotional we tend to get, leaving us less equipped at coming to sound productive resolutions to our many complicated problems. It is only when our mind is still, calm, and resilient, when we can adeptly resolve our many problems in life.
I’m not saying that emotions should never be a factor in decision making as they clearly have strong benefits, but rather I’m saying that when it comes to solving life’s problems and making big decisions, the less impulsive, neurotic, and high strung we are the better we will be at coming to sound reasonable conclusions.
Relieve Anxiety in Seconds with Mindfulness Meditation
As fictitious as it may sound to say that you actually can relieve all of your anxiety within seconds, regardless of how intense your anxiety is, I encourage you to dispel such skepticism as what I have to say on this matter can truly change your life forever, just as it has changed mine.
The amount of psychological agony you can expect to no longer experience as a result of this newfound perspective is absolutely priceless. It doesn’t matter which end of the spectrum you’re on either. Whether you cannot go a single day without experiencing a panic attack or if you only experience a minuscule amount of anxiety in social situations, my advice on this topic will be equally beneficial. Such information may not be esoteric to avid meditators, but it likely will be for most people who are often lost in thought all day long without being consciously aware of it.
The degree with which any one person will suffer psychologically is highly, if not entirely, dependent upon the attention one gives toward that which is painful. Assuredly, there are some forms of torture that even the most enlightened yogi would deem unbearable. However, the reality is that people who meditate frequently are able to cope with pain, psychologically and physically, much more adeptly than someone who has never meditated before. This is not to say they don’t suffer, but rather that the amount of suffering they do experience is infinitesimal when juxtaposed to a non-meditator. This is unequivocally true, both theoretically and empirically.
Be that as it may, you need not be an experienced meditator who’s clocked in thousands of hours of silent meditation to successfully dissipate your anxiety in just a handful of seconds. Rather, all you need is an understanding of the root cause and the nature of your psychological suffering (i.e. discursive thoughts), as well the coping skills needed to immediately disarm anxiety the moment you’re consciously aware of it. Such skills are accessible for anyone with any level of anxiety.
With regards to the psychological suffering associated with anxiety, your attention is everything. In moments when we’re highly anxious, it seems as though the only thing that truly captures our full undivided attention is our anxious thoughts. We dwell on all the reasons why we’re fearful and why we should remain fearful, even if the thing being feared is just in our imagination. It is the amalgamation and consistency of these useless fear thoughts that is the problem here, not the emotion of anxiety itself.
Ask yourself, what is the breakthrough that occurs the moment you realize you are no longer anxious? Is it that the imaginary or irrational threat you cultivated in your mind has somehow left or dissipated from reality? Or perhaps you’ve found a safe space and have removed yourself from the thing that was causing your anxiety in the first place? Although these are definitely plausible ways to reduce your anxiety, the problem is that you lose all control in the process. When taking such a passive role you become a victim to the whims of your anxiety, and you allow your emotions to control you instead of the inverse.
Another problem with hiding from your fears or simply waiting for your anxiety to subside is that there is no known time limit on such an occurrence. Sitting around waiting for your fears to go away means that you may remain anxious for hours or even days insofar as you are constantly feeding your mind discursive worry thoughts. However, there is a solution to this problem, and that solution is mindfulness meditation.
Keep in mind that what I’m not going to do here is tell you to just focus on your breath when you feel anxious. Such tepid advice would be insulting not only to you, but to myself as well. Although deep mindful breathing is certainly very useful for helping to reduce one’s anxiety, it pales in comparison when juxtaposed to the breadth of techniques I’m going to explain to you.
The two skills I’m referring to here are: Paying attention to the physical sensations you feel when you are anxious (e.g. racing heartbeat, sweating, trembling, muscle tension, fatigue, butterflies, etc.) and to also recognize that your thoughts are just thoughts and nothing more.
When you completely redirect your attention away from your discursive fear thoughts and toward the involuntary muscle contractions in your shoulders or the pounding of your heart beating through your chest, then it is literally impossible for you to remain anxious. The only way you can feasibly maintain your anxiety at any level would be if you were to continue feeding it by repetitively thinking to yourself over and over and over again of all the reasons why you should be afraid of the thing you’re afraid of.
Such automaticity in one’s thinking patterns ceases to exist when one’s attention has been nonjudgmentally redirected onto something that does not have any emotional baggage attached to it; something that is void of any and all emotion. This “something” is the many sensations that are available to observe in one’s physiology.
Furthermore, mere observation of your physiology is not enough as it matters whether you decide to judge those sensations or not. Choosing to either judge or not judge the way your body feels when you’re nervous is literally the difference between experiencing hours of unnecessary mental anguish and experiencing a few seconds of anxiety. The difference here is as consequential as they come.
It’s absolutely imperative that you objectively and therefore nonjudgmentally focus your attention on your body’s physiology, as opposed to judging the attributed sensations as being “good” or “bad.” Let me explain why this matters. Let’s imagine someone in a social situation who’s experiencing an influx of anxiety.
They start to sweat profusely, and their face turns red. If they were to give their subjective opinion about the changes in their physiology, the result would be that they’re no longer being mindful. Their judgements about their physiology would encompass thoughts such as, “Ugh, everyone will notice I’m sweating and will think I’m gross.” or “Great. Now I’m blushing. Someone’s going to know I’m nervous.” Indulging in these kinds of worry thoughts is the precursor to further suffering as they do nothing but reinforce your fears, regardless of how irrational your fears may in fact be.
On the other hand, if this same person were to instead objectively observe their physiology without judging it in any way, then what they would get is a complete redirection of their attention away from negative self-talk and toward the way it feels as their body temperature rises and perspires or to the warmth being radiated off of their blushing cheeks. The specific area of physiology they choose to focus on is not what’s important here. Rather, what is important is that they actually do find a point of focus somewhere in their physiology and wholeheartedly redirect their attention toward it.
Negative, critical thoughts about yourself can increase your anxiety to a disturbing degree. Objective, nonjudgmental thoughts about yourself can increase your equanimity to a prodigious degree.
With this being said, I clearly understand how an anxious person can find paying attention to the sensations of their aroused body to be unpleasant. Having a flushed face, trembling knees, a racing heart, intense fatigue, and a dry mouth are oftentimes very unpleasant experiences. Be that as it may, for the sake of self-care and reducing unnecessary psychological suffering for yourself, indulging in negative, reactive thoughts will only exacerbate your anxiety and increase the duration of your suffering.
When you nonjudgmentally redirect your attention toward the way your body is feeling, whether that be paying attention to the pounding of your chest as your heart races or paying close attention to the way it feels as your knees shake, the fuel with which anxiety desperately needs to survive simply cannot be sustained. All that will be left is pure physiology.
Fear originates in the mind and when your attention has been completely redirected to something objective, such as your body’s physiology, then what you are experiencing is no longer anxiety, but instead it is merely the physiological aftermath of what was once anxiety.
Thoughts are just thoughts
Paradoxically, your thoughts do not have inherent meaning within them. Thoughts are just thoughts and nothing more. They often appear without our consent seemingly out of nowhere. Thoughts, just like emotions are transitory experiences which come and go. This means that your fears are only momentary, just as your happiness is only momentary.
The only meaning thoughts have, regardless of how arbitrary or discursive the thought is, is whatever meaning you choose to give it. There isn’t a scintilla of effort needed to pretend that thoughts don’t have inherent meaning within themselves, because objectively speaking, they simply don’t.
Thoughts arise in and out of our minds all the time and are oftentimes not the result of our own doing, but rather they are a consequence of consciousness. When we’re anxious, we become bombarded with an influx of anxious thoughts which illuminate themselves from the dark corners of our subconscious mind in a sort of automatic or reflexive manner. We then instantly attribute artificial meanings to the images and words inside of those thoughts, which then reinforce our fears.
It is true to say that you do in fact have the option to either entertain each thought that arbitrarily pops into your conscious awareness as being veridical or to objectively observe your thoughts as just inevitable transient experiences in the mind. For most of us, when thoughts arise, we often believe them to be true.
For example, our thoughts may make us question our ability to do something adeptly or they may convince us that some sort of impending doom is shortly awaiting us in lieu of actual evidence. Having such thoughts arise in consciousness and to robotically believe them to be true because “you thought them” is the direct source of the problem here. Deep introspection should unveil this illusion to you.
How could “you” have thought something when you had no control over the content of that thought, nor the manifestation of the thought itself. It simply arose, seemingly out of thin air with contents that you did not conform.
My point here is that thoughts simply rise in and out of consciousness on a near constant basis without our consent and that we needn’t dwell on every single thought that makes its way into our awareness as though the information within it is inherently sacred or factual. Instead, we can objectively observe our thoughts for what they truly are, just thoughts, not veridical predictions about future events.
I’m not saying that thinking itself or introspection is inherently bad. However, when you’re highly anxious your thoughts will almost always be laced with a prodigious amount of irrational criticism and self-doubt. When in such a fight or flight state of mind, the most productive thing you can possibly do is to redirect your attention away from your discursive thoughts and toward the physiology of your body, as well as to objectively observe each thought that arises as just a thought and not something that must be true by default.
If you’re still unsure as to what I mean, then you may find the following analogy useful:
Pretend for a moment that your mind is like a giant factory; a factory that produces millions upon millions of products securely shipped in boxes each and every day. These boxes travel throughout the factory by way of conveyor belts which seem to bend and turn in every direction possible to ensure that the maximum number of boxes can be shipped out of the factory to individual stores. In this analogy, the “factory” is your mind, and the “boxes” filled with products are your thoughts.
Each box resting on the moving conveyor belts contain within them contents (ideas, beliefs, opinions, and memories) which are themselves the precursors to emotions. You have the choice to either stand in front of the conveyor belt and objectively observe each box (thought) that passes by or you can open (dwell on) each box that passes in front of you, entertaining all of the contents that each box has within it, albeit pleasant or unpleasant. The option to do this is readily available to you and it always will be.
There is no need to frantically open every box that passes in front of you, opening up a new pandora’s box filled with worry thoughts and unwanted emotions. These boxes on the conveyor belt are infinite and you cannot control the number of boxes that pass in front of you, nor can you make all the boxes go away. However, what you can do is allow the boxes, or thoughts, to drift in and out of the factory of your mind by objectively observing them for what they truly are.
Using the skills laid out herein can undoubtedly make your anxiety disappear within seconds. Regardless of if you’re experiencing a modicum of fear or if you’re having a full-blown panic attack, the results will be the same: The psychological experience of anxiety will cease to exist. Also, notice here that I’m talking about the dissipation of psychological anxiety, not physiological anxiety.
The differences between these two “forms of anxiety” are as stark as they come because the former one exists, while the latter one doesn’t. Below, I’ll explain this in further detail.
What about physiological anxiety?
You might be thinking to yourself that anxiety is not all psychological, but that it is also physiological. For example, once you redirect your attention to the many different sensations arising in your body, your heart will still be pounding rapidly, your knees will still be trembling, and your face will still be blushing. How is this not anxiety?
Well, when we compare the physical symptoms of anxiety to that of a more favorable emotion like excitement, then the closer we get to understanding the illusoriness of physiological anxiety.
Let’s think about the emotions of fear and excitement for a moment. Looking at them closely, it doesn’t take long before we realize they are physiologically identical. Obviously, fear and excitement are very different emotions and they affect us differently. However, the differences between them, as well as the way they affect us are based solely on the thoughts we associate with them, not with the way it makes our body feel.
Whether you’re feeling dreadfully fearful or joyously excited, your body’s physiology will not differ in a way that will allow you to distinctly recognize which one is which. Instead, it is the culmination of your thoughts which dictate whether you are experiencing fear or excitement. Think about this for a moment.
Let’s picture a woman whose heart is pounding, whose palms are sweaty, whose hands are trembling, and whose eyes are crying. Is this a description of a woman who has just been kidnapped or is it a woman who has just been asked by her loving boyfriend to marry her? By merely observing her physiology, we simply cannot come to such a conclusion.
In an episode of the Making Sense Podcast, neuroscientist Sam Harris articulated that the physiological residue of anger (i.e. racing heartbeat, shakiness, muscle tension, etc.) that one experiences after they have successfully diverted their attention away from their discursive anger thoughts is no different than experiencing any other sort of unwanted physiological pain, such as having sore muscles or a crick in one’s neck.
I found this perspective to be incredibly insightful and useful as it made me realize that when I’m feeling anxious, I don’t have to believe what my body is telling me. This is to say that when my body is experiencing the physiological aftermath of anxiety, I don’t have to mindlessly and automatically give in to the whims of my monkey-mind and therefore cultivate thoughts which mirror the way my body feels. I can instead just objectively observe any physiological sensations that arise, just as I would with any other sort of unwanted pain that couldn’t be immediately thwarted.
I think about the physiological pain associated with anxiety much differently now. When my heart uncomfortably beats out of my chest during an influx of anxiety, I simply focus my attention toward the way it feels. I become interested in the physiological sensations associated with it. In fact, I sometimes find such objective observations to even be intellectually pleasurable as I find it interesting to navigate through all of the many different sensations arising in my body.
This, in addition to my understanding that no matter how anxious I get and no matter how fatigued or tense my anxiety makes me, it is just momentary. Realizing that before I know it these sensations will dissipate as quickly as they arose makes investigating these sensations when they do appear even that much more interesting and incentivized.
Do these skills come with caveats?
It is unequivocal to say that using the skills I’ve mentioned will allow you to make your anxiety disappear in seconds. Although, there are some things that you need to be aware of first. Most importantly, you should realize that the various skills I have described are but mindfulness meditation techniques, and like all other forms of meditation, the art of being mindful requires a lot of consistent practice.
How much practice? Well, it’s different for everyone. You needn’t go off to a silent retreat for 3 months to acquire the benefits I’ve illustrated thus far, although it certainly could help. Rather, you need only practice using these skills every time you notice yourself becoming anxious.
The moment you recognize you are in fact worried, nervous, fearful, or any other incarnation of anxiety, then you should immediately redirect your attention toward the physiological sensations arising in your body, as well as noticing any and all thoughts that arise as just thoughts that have no inherent meaning within them. Practicing this over and over again for each time you become anxious will allow you to become better adept at not only noticing when it is that you’re actually anxious, but it will also decrease the amount of time that you’ll remain anxious.
If you find it to be virtually impossible to focus your attention on your heartbeat, your breathing, or the butterflies in your stomach when anxiety consumes you, don’t get discouraged. Remaining mindful during moments of high anxiety can be very challenging, but like most things, the more you do it the better you’ll get at it.
It has taken me about two years of practice to get to where I am now, and I still have a lot of work left to do. It is the amalgamation of the time I spent practicing my skills in moments of intense, panic inducing anxiety that has allowed me to now be able to make my anxiety go away in just seconds. Of course, there are many times I fail at this, but there are also many times when I succeed.
Every new anxious situation I find myself in is a new opportunity to practice the techniques I’ve been describing. And I know the more I practice these techniques, the more adept I will become at making my anxiety disappear the moment I notice it arising.
Some of you reading this may be discouraged seeing as how it took me so long to get to where I am now, but keep in mind that my anxiety was on the extreme end of the spectrum when I first started dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and learned about mindfulness meditation and how it can be used as a tool to help regulate emotions. So, depending on how severe your anxiety is, it may only take a handful of times before you can completely rid yourself of anxiety seconds after you notice its presence.
Furthermore, it’s also important to understand that when you do become lost in thought moments after successfully honing in your attention on something like your breath or your heartbeat, this should not be a cause for concern. It is inevitable that you will eventually lose your focus and become lost in thought even if you’ve been able to remain completely mindful for several minutes. When this happens, you need only gently redirect your attention back to objectively observing whichever area of physiology you were attentive to moments prior.
All things considered, the amount of time it will take for you to become adept at these skills is not what is important as that is information that can never be known. Instead, you should focus on improving your ability to 1.) Notice when you are anxious, 2.) Nonjudgmentally redirect your attention away from your discursive thoughts and toward the physical sensations arising in your body, and 3.) See any and all thoughts that appear during bouts of unwanted anxiety as just transitory phenomena void of inherent meaning.
One of the most lucrative aspects of mindfulness meditation is that it makes what would normally be an emotionally tortuous situation with no end in sight into a slightly uncomfortable, tolerable moment that will only last for as long as you decide to dwell on the idea of it. To dissipate your anxiety within seconds, you need only practice the skills described throughout this blog post nonjudgmentally, consistently, and resiliently.