The human mind is designed to detect threat. It is primed to be alert to danger so that it can keep us safe and ensure our survival. Our brain developed in a different environment to the one in which we now live. When our ancestors heard a storm coming in on the savanna, worrying about finding shelter quickly and feeling anxiety in the body – racing heart, breathing faster – helped to prioritise survival. The problem now is that modern threats are very different in nature. In the Western world, most of us are lucky enough not to have to worry about our basic survival needs: food, shelter, water, predators. But we still have the same brains, the same hardware with which we experience our world. So instead, we worry about events in the future, what may happen, or things that have no immediate answer, setting ourselves up for chronic worry.
We can get stuck in our heads, worrying about a situation, convincing ourselves that X or Y will happen. We can feel trapped with the worry, with no escape. Our attention is completely focused on the worry thoughts, and sometimes it can be immobilising. We can get trapped in our heads trying to fight against worry, or push it away.
We can’t get rid of our capacity for worry, and neither should we want to. We need to understand our brain and its tendency to worry and how we can work with that rather than against it.
Mindfulness techniques can be useful in managing worry as they can teach us to become skilled in focusing our attention. When we worry, our attention is directed internally, we can find it difficult to focus on anything other than the worry. Mindfulness techniques train us to cultivate our attention; if we think of attention like a spotlight, worry hogs the spotlight at the expense of everything else. Mindfulness can teach us to direct that spotlight at other things, thereby using a different part of our brain, switching from thinking mode to perceiving mode. When we worry, we can get caught up in our thinking mode, and get locked into a battle… if this happens, what will I do, how will others react, what will happen then… At times like this, it can be beneficial to switch into perceiving mode and change gear as our thinking mode is not helping us. Perceiving mode is about turning our attention to moment-by-moment experience. What is there when we direct our attention away from the worry? There is you – a body, much more than the sum of your thoughts, breathing, existing in this moment, being.
With regular practice, mindfulness techniques can teach us how to relate to our worry differently. We can learn to observe our thoughts by taking a step back and recognising thoughts as just that, thoughts. Thoughts do not necessarily reflect reality however much our anxious minds try to convince us of it. Our thoughts are not always the storms we think they are; with mindfulness we learn to observe the storm instead of getting swept away by it.
Both anxiety and mindfulness are huge topics, and this blog is merely the briefest of introductions. To find out more, see our other blogs on mindfulness and try our free guided mindfulness exercise to learn more about the topic. Mindsurgery London runs mindfulness courses in the workplace and for the public. Contact us for more details.
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