Mindfulness vs Stress and Anxiety

What is stress and anxiety

We are stressed by a change in circumstances. The situation demands us to do or be something different. For example, the lockdown due to COVID-19 made us all change our normal day to day behaviour. Anxiety is our reaction to perceived stress.

These emotions are evolved in us because they were beneficial for our survival as a species. The threats that produces anxiety had changed now that our survival is very rarely on the line. Yet the consequences of anxiety for a prolong period damages our mental wellbeing, and then the physical wellbeing1.

There are variety of anxiety disorders resulting from worrying about the future, phobias, self consciousness in social situations, PTSD, and OCD. These disorders manifest themselves as physical illnesses after prolonged bouts 2. This is because our body has to divert its resources in order to prepare us to face a crisis and make us alert. This escalates our bio machinery from repair and restore to high performance mode.

The feeling is thought to arise in the amygdala, a brain region that governs many intense emotional responses. As neurotransmitters carry the impulse to the sympathetic nervous system, heart and breathing rates increase, muscles tense, and blood flow is diverted from the abdominal organs to the brain.

During our evolution, the environment was harsh and death was all around. A crisis meant life or death. Food was scarce so the body evolved to conserve energy and also somehow survive. And this is the strategy our biological machinery had come up with. The physiological effects of anxiety is therefore very real.

The effects of anxiety on the body

Left unchecked, anxiety leads to physical diseases such as heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS, or voluntary harm by drug or alcohol abuse. Most of these diseases are treated with drug therapy. But they have their own side effects and they are costly.

How mindfulness could help in a stressful situation

Mindfulness brings awareness to your thoughts and feelings. This is one of the significant levels of achievement. When you grow this awareness, it facilitates time for a measured response, not a reaction. Reactions are what we justify to ourselves and others after the fact. Reactions generally don’t lead to positive outcomes. They make the situation even worse. When you see someone responding to a situation in a calm and collected manner, that impresses us. Our respect and regard to them increases, and we are more likely to comply because they show an ability to handle a situation well. This is an inspiring moment to witness. And it is quite likely if you have witnessed something like that, you come away thinking “I wish I could be like that”. The truth is you can, and being mindful is how you get there.

Does mindfulness work for anxiety?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) helps people increase their awareness of anxiety and helps them to change their behaviour in reacting to a situation. Increasing awareness and observing without judgement is at the heart of being mindful 3. Incorporating Mindfulness to our daily lives has a better chance of preventing diseases caused by anxiety and it’s much less costly. Science is clear on the ability of mindfulness meditation in having a positive effect on stress and anxiety 4. Not only that it also had been beneficial in treating relapses in substance abuse 5.

Can mindfulness be harmful?

One of the most common difficulties for a beginner is the doubt if they are doing it correctly. It could be awkward or uncomfortable for someone to assume a pose, sit silently and think about nothing. This could increase the anxiety as they expect an instant feedback. But being mindful doesn’t have instant results. The results come from consistent practice. The quality of some ones meditation can’t be measured objectively.

There are incidences where people had a bad experience such as panic and depersonalisation during deep meditation sessions. A study conducted in 20146 found that about quarter of the 30 subjects in the two year study reported substantial difficulties such as

They felt that their problems had been due to meditating incorrectly and/or to a lack of guidance in interpreting anomalous experiences. In particular, severe adverse experiences were generally associated with a combination of (1) attempting advanced meditation practices (such as the Six Element practice) while still a relative beginner and (2) lacking a teacher or a sangha to help one make sense of these experiences.

Deeper levels of contemplative meditation are done for a week or more straight, with isolation and strict rules on self discipline. Feeling panic and sense of depersonalisation is expected in these sessions. Depersonalisation is the feeling of disconnect from your physical aspects, it could be frightening to dissolve your identity. Reputable institutions that offer these sessions has teachers for guidance and make sense of what you experience. This level of meditation is fundamentally about confronting difficult thoughts and emotions. This requires the skill not only to identify the the thought and emotion. But also the mental strength with guidance to deal with the thoughts and emotions encountered.

Meditation should not be tried as a bootcamp version of getting fit. It’s not something you can go to extremes for a week or two and get back all the benefits from there on. Deep sessions of meditation is where you contemplate on the nature of reality and disassociating ego. These are not what the people generally seek to achieve. They want to improve the condition of their daily lives, without changing their lives drastically.

Do mindfulness activities really work?

The most common mindfulness activity is breathing meditation. This is where you sit still and focus on breathing in and out. The simplicity of this is the problem. It is very easy for your mind to wander off. It takes consistent attempts to keep the focus. Even the seasoned practitioners have trouble sometimes. With countdown meditation, with every breath you count down. Bringing back the focus to the count in regular intervals. This is much easier for a beginner as it gives some structure to the practice. Our app Sanebrain has this in a very simple and intuitive interface for daily practice.

How to form it a habit

One of the biggest obstacles to achieving the benefits of meditation is the feeling of boredom. It is not interesting to sit in one place to without doing anything. It is the same thing over and over again. When our minds are over stimulated, we seek the novelty ever more frequently. This is one downside of our ever connected society. In order to overcome the initial frustration of having to be mindful, try to make it a habit by chaining it to some activity you already do without thinking. For example, do meditation for 5 minutes right after brushing teeth. The trick is to keep this going for at least a week or two straight without change. It should not be something you should schedule at different times in a day or something you’d shift around. It’s a small commitment with big upside.

Make a commitment

What brings change is the action. You can gain all the information you ever wanted on the internet, but unless you act in the direction of your goals, the likelihood of fulfilment is very small. Large number of studies over the years and from anecdotal evidence from large number of practitioners, shows mindfulness gives a positive edge to your life. But its benefits can not be had without putting in some effort.

Consistent practice is better than a long session.

If you can do a mindfulness exercise for 5 minutes every day, it is better than doing it 60 minutes once a week. Start and maintain the consistency than worry about, seating positions, what music to play, what to wear, and where to do it. Everyday at the same time makes it easier to form the habit. Wandering mind is not something to stress about. You can not stop the mind from wandering, what you can do is to bring it focus time and time again.

It is like the waves crashing on the shore. Water rises, crashes on the shore and it recedes back. And the cycle repeats. Goal is not to prevent waves from forming.