Everyone gets anxious from time to time. We all know that feeling of butterflies in the stomach when we have a challenge ahead such as an exam, a tough conversation or a presentation to deliver. This is perfectly normal and is part of our natural defence mechanism. However, when this continues over a longer period, and prevents you from doing the things you want to do, it could be a sign that you’d benefit from some additional support.
Anxiety vs stress
Stress is typically caused by an external trigger, such as a demanding line manager, financial difficulties or a chronic illness. Anxiety on the other hand, is defined by persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor. Its origin is internal. Anxiety and stress produce very similar symptoms, including insomnia, difficulty concentrating, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle tension, irritability and social withdrawal.
The current reality
If you are struggling with anxiety, you are not alone:
- In 2022/23, high levels of anxiety were reported by 37% of women and 30% of men1
- Compared to data from 2012 to 2015, this has increased significantly from 22% for women and 18% for men2
- 264m individuals worldwide have an anxiety disorder3
- Globally, working days lost due to depression and anxiety cost US$ 1 trillion per year in lost productivity.4
How can mindfulness help with anxiety?
Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to the present moment, without judgement. It’s like a gym for the brain. Research shows that with regular practice we can experience several benefits, such as:
1. Feeling calmer and more in control
When we go into fight-or-flight, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, which causes symptoms such as increased blood pressure and heart rate, stimulation of the muscles, dilation of the pupils, and a sense of tunnel vision. It sounds awful, but this shift is an ingenious part of our evolution and is necessary for our survival as a species.
However, in today’s world, the triggers of stress are usually very different, and this cascade of events is not necessary. With mindfulness we can train the ability to notice it happening and move ourselves towards a calmer state where we have more control over our responses.
2. Coping better with our busy lives
Today’s world is busy and complex. With all the demands on our time, whether that’s a busy job, family and friends, the latest Netflix documentary or all of the above, it’s no wonder that we feel the need to multitask. But the truth is our brains can’t do two mentally demanding things at the same time. We can walk and talk at the same time because these are automatic actions. But trying to deliver a project while managing an overflowing inbox is a recipe for stress and exhaustion.
Studies have shown that multitasking can reduce productivity by 40%, because what we’re doing is quickly switching back and forth between tasks, which impairs cognitive ability. While it might feel like we’re getting lots done, we’re most likely being less productive and reducing the quality of our output. Mindfulness can train the ability to focus for longer periods of time, resist distractions, and develop better awareness of where to place our attention. And it can help us to recognise when we need to slow down and just be.
3. Improved awareness
We often go through our days in a state of auto pilot, where we don’t really tune in to the present moment. We can sometimes be so busy and pre-occupied that we struggle to notice our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, or the surrounding environment. How often have you got to the end of the day and felt hot, tired, dizzy perhaps, and realised that you’re dehydrated because you haven’t had enough water to drink.
In that example the lack of awareness has even caused us to forget about our basic human needs. It can also prevent us from enjoying our experiences. Perhaps worrying about the past or future while playing with our children, eating a nice meal or taking a walk. Mindfulness can help us to cultivate a greater sense of awareness, which can have a positive impact on the way we experience the world.
4. Appreciation and gratitude
Humans have a natural negativity bias, which served our ancestors well, and helped them to survive challenging environments. Fearing the worst may have been the difference between going back home for dinner, or becoming dinner. As a result, this trait has been passed down to us, so we too tend to focus on the negative. The only problem is in our environment, this is not as beneficial, and can even be to our detriment. It can give us a skewed perspective where we struggle to find the positives in our day.
Consider at work if you receive ten pieces of good feedback, and one piece of constructive advice. Which one will you be dwelling on for the rest of the day? And then there’s the news. Bad news sells right? And on top of our natural negativity bias, most of the news we see will also be negative, which can create a cycle of doom scrolling that’s difficult to escape from. Mindfulness can help us to achieve a more positive outlook, through techniques such as journaling and practicing gratitude. It’s not about ignoring the bad things. It’s about moving towards a more balanced view, where we can appreciate all the wonderful things in our lives.
Please be aware that although mindfulness may benefit some people who are struggling with anxiety, for others, the best course of action may be to seek the advice of a medical professional. If you are unsure, please visit your GP.
If you’d like to find out more about coping with anxiety, or how to embed mindfulness in your daily life, please contact us. We’d love to hear from you.