Wellbeing & Words Blog
Anxious. Unsettled. Uneasy. Agitated. Frustrated. Tense. Racing thoughts. Obsessive thoughts. Rumination. Headache. Heartburn. Chest pain. Lump in your throat. Clenched jaw.
This list could continue on and on. And it does continue within us. These are some of the things we can experience when we’re anxious. There’s a way to deal with being anxious both right now and going forward.
Spend Less Time Anxious. Expand Your Quiet Space
Take another look at the list of anxiety words. Notice that being anxious involves your whole self: thoughts, emotions, physical sensations. Anxiety is an experience within us—mind and body—that is a reaction to things around us.
When you’re feeling anxious, turning inward can be calming. However, forcing calm and quiet doesn’t work. (Raise you’re hand if you’ve tried to make your thoughts stop. Raise your other hand if it didn’t work and the mental chatter and anxious feelings only became stronger.)
The key is not to try to make quiet space in your mind and body but instead to find the space that is already there.
Finding the Space Within
Reducing anxiety involves being still despite the thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and people and situations outside of us. These things crowd us, pressing in and shouting to dominate our attention. While we always have some choices and a degree of control over how we respond to circumstances, we can’t fully control everything. Some things make us anxious but we either can’t or decide not to (often for good reason) do anything about them.
What we can do is to turn our attention away from the stressors and onto other things such as our values, vision, purpose, and passions. To transition our attention from being anxious to thriving, turn to the space within you.
Two prominent sources of space within everyone are
- Within our breath, between every inhale and exhale
- Between our thoughts
Deep breathing is powerful, with numerous benefits for our mind-body health. Breathing slowly and deeply can significantly reduce anxiety. There’s more to the breath than just the inhale and exhale, however. There is the space between them.
Right now, place your hands on your belly and breathe in slowly. Breathe so that your hands are pushed out (your inhale should cause your belly to expand rather than your shoulders to lift). Breathe out slowly. Inhale once again, but this time notice the pause that occurs before you exhale. In that pause, there is quiet space.
The same goes for your thoughts. Despite the fact that it seems like they never stop, they do, even if only for the briefest of moments. Between one thought and the next, there is a small pause to switch direction. In that pause, there is quiet space.
Mindfulness in Your Quiet Space
These spaces are small, and that’s okay. Being aware that they exist gives you something new to focus on. When you catch yourself thinking anxious thoughts or feeling anxious feelings, you can shift into that quiet space. Sitting in quiet meditation or practicing mindfulness either while meditating or while doing your current task at hand will allow you to shift into the quiet space between thoughts and breaths.
A few ways to do this:
- Pay attention to your breathing, especially the pauses.
- Take a walk, inhale fresh air, and note how it makes you expand.
- Look for space around you, such as the space between leaves on a tree or the space between your pots on the stove when you cook. Space is everywhere. Let it continually remind you to find your quiet space within.
- Focus on the quiet rather than creating noise by fighting with your thoughts. They exist, but if you don’t pay attention to them, they can’t keep you anxious.
In an article dispelling the myths of meditation, Deepak Chopra states,
Although we can’t impose quiet on our mind, through meditation we can find the quiet that already exists in the space between our thoughts.”
Shifting your focus to the quiet spaces you already have inside you will help you become less anxious with more room to be how you want to be instead.
While I’m not one to tell people what to do, I will say this anyway: You need to celebrate stuff every day. Intentionally seeking things to celebrate on a daily basis increases your sense of wellbeing and your life satisfaction. Finding or creating things to celebrate, even if they are minuscule, is a way of making a good life lived in moments (as opposed to chaotic chunks). Identify the good and taking a moment (or multiple moments) to celebrate it shifts your perspective in a positive direction and infuses your life with a sense of meaning.
Celebrating means doing even quick, little things to acknowledge something positive. It helps you internalize the good rather than taking it for granted and just rushing onto the next thing. We actually have to learn to do this and practice it regularly.
The human brain has a negativity bias. Human beings naturally focus on the negative and discount the positive, which leads to anxiety, depression, stress, reduced mental health and wellbeing, and an overall sense of unhappiness in life. This began as a survival mechanism, but it wore out its welcome thousands of years ago. Yet it hangs on. This is why it’s important to shake the negativity bias lose by celebrating the positive.
Why Celebrate? Neurological Reasons
The human brain is made to celebrate. Reactions to your celebrations are built into the neurochemistry of your brain. When you do something positive on purpose to celebrate something within you or around you, the brain responds by activating its own reward center. It releases a feel-good hormone called dopamine. You are flooded with positive emotions and feel energized. Basically, the brain is doing its very own happy dance in response to yours. (Of course “you” and “your brain” aren’t separate. You’re an intricate system that dances as one.)
Your celebrations of the positive things in life and brain’s dopamine response can play a seemingly infinite tennis volley. You seek the good and celebrate it, serving it to your brain’s reward center which then returns the shot with positive emotions. The positivity you experience impacts your thoughts, feelings, and actions, and you do more of what works, which in this case is doing small celebrations. The volley can continue indefinitely.
Why Celebrate? Existential Reasons
Seek out the good in life and pause to celebrate it. When you do this consistently over time, it improves your subjective experience of your very existence (hence the existential reasons). At it’s essence, celebrating is a powerful way of creating a quality.
Seeking and celebrating the good isn’t about putting an end to the bad things in your life. As existentialists will tell you, the negative is part of life. But those existentialists will also tell you that the positive is part of life, too, and that you have the power to create meaning in your life and the ability to choose and shape your perspective. How do you interpret and act on the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful? The answer lies in the meaning you place on the people, situations, and experiences in your life. Finding the good on purpose and acknowledging it with even a very simple celebration is one important way you make meaning for your mental health and wellbeing.
A Celebration Meditation
Celebrations can take many forms. They can even be mental. The key is to acknowledge and to do something–take an action, bold or subtle, or happily recognize the good internally. Whatever you do will work, remember, because it’s built into our neurology. Activating the reward center is like throwing a stone and creating ripples in a pond that gently move outward, encompassing your whole being. Try this meditation as a celebration:
Ripples In a Pond Celebration Meditation
This meditation can be as long or as brief as you wish.
- Get comfortable where you are. Stand, sit, or lie down.
- Take several slow, deep breaths.
- With a smile, acknowledge what you’re celebrating.
- Visualize yourself selecting stones from a pathway, river bank, or beach. Select one stone for each thing you’re celebrating. It’s okay if you’re celebrating just one thing. Simply choose one stone.
- Visualize yourself coloring your stone(s) and decorating them. This decoration is a celebration. Pick colors you love, paint images that make you feel joyous or at peace. Depict the person or thing you’re celebrating in a way that is meaningful to you.
- Visualize yourself walking to a beautiful pond. You’ve been here before, and it contains other rocks you’ve tossed in to celebrate positive things.
- When you’re ready, do a dance, make a happy noise, jump into the air, or something that feels right to you, and toss your stone into the pond.
- Enjoy watching the ripples. Step out into the pond a bit to meet them.
- Allow yourself to feel happy about what you’re celebrating, how you just celebrated, and that the ripples reached back to you.
In the words of Deepak Chopra in his book The Healing Self:
The best way to build a happy life is to build happy days.”
It is through noticing the good and celebrating it that we build happy days. We choose our perspective and make meaning for a quality life.
What do you celebrate and how do you celebrate it? This image shows just a few ideas. (A commentary on the woman doing dishes. Pink gloves don’t make her chore disappear, but they make it more lighthearted. Both the gloves and that perspective are reasons to celebrate. So is the satisfied feeling of a clean kitchen.) What and/or how do you celebrate? Share below! And for wellbeing delivered to your inbox, scroll to the bottom and sign up for the Wellbeing & Words newsletter.
Wellbeing and mindfulness aren’t just for retreats, spas, and other calm environments. Quite the opposite is true, in fact. While placing yourself in a soothing environment, like sitting in a favorite room in the morning while enjoying a cup of tea, is important for calming mind and body, the power of mindfulness can be fully experienced in the midst of chaos.
As parents, teachers, and caregivers of children, we are constantly focused on each child’s wellbeing: “Did you brush your teeth?” “Did you finish your dinner?” “Did you put on sunscreen?” But, are we concentrated on their mental wellbeing? It’s an important question to pose, as mental health should be valued as highly as our children’s’ physical health. Alarmingly, according to experts, 70% of children and young people who experience a mental health problem have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age. Good mental health provides children with the life-long ability to cope with difficult circumstances and situations.
Among the many types of freedom, mental freedom is perhaps the most important of all. Every year in early July, the United States celebrates Independence Day. Many nations joyfully observe their own independence at various times throughout the year. Regardless of where one lives, an independence day is a day that celebrates freedom from unwanted control. The significance of this day goes far deeper than the political realm and touches each and every one of us on a personal level of being and impacts our mental freedom and wellbeing. .
To live well and embrace a life of wellbeing, we need to experience mental freedom. When we feel as though we are under the control of anxiety, depression, trauma, eating disorders, brain injury, toxic relationships, or so much more, we often feel caged. Our mental health and happiness suffer. Just as entire nations have broken free from unwanted control, so can we as individuals who want to live quality lives.
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Honors & Awards
Named to Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2016
My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel
Named to Kirkus Reviews’ list of Best Books of 2014
U.S. Review of Books
Recipient of the Storytellers Campfire Marble Book Award for being a “book which has made a significant difference in the world.”