People come to me to learn about mindfulness for lots of different reasons. Sometimes they’re stressed, sometimes they want to supplement a wellness practice they already have, sometimes they just heard it’s cool and are curious. Lately, there’s been a theme to the inquiries, though. In a nutshell, I’ll call it “mindfulness in the moment.” I’m hearing from a lot of you in the hours or moments before a big exam, presentation, or other stressful experience that you know is coming (there are plenty that we don’t, right?), asking for tips to manage the anxiety within as the clock approaches go-time.
I’m always happy to receive these requests. They show me that you’re thinking about mindfulness as a strategy for pushing through the anxiety, which it most definitely is. Because I so appreciate the thought, I’m going to skip the lecture here about how establishing a regular mindfulness practice makes it a little easier to access it when the moment urgently calls for it. (Kind of like how working out regularly makes it easier to take the stairs double-time when you’re late…but you know this. I digress.)
Instead, we’re going to talk about what you can do when you your heart starts pounding and telling it to please, pretty please just stop doesn’t seem to do the trick.
Your BFF in this situation is definitely your breath. Connecting with your breath does several important things in moment like these:
- First, it focuses your mind, which when you are anxious, tends to run around like its pants are on fire, darting from one scary thought to the next. It gives you an anchor to connect to and ground through when your mind won’t do so on its own.
- Second, if you take a moment to intentionally slow and deepen your breath, your body gets a very important message. You’re telling it that it is okay to relax. You are actually sending a message from your breath to your brain that there is no threat to your safety, which enables you to kick the “fight or flight” mode, and slide into a little “rest and digest.” It is literally a release valve for the panic.
- Third, it brings you into the present moment. Your inhales and exhales are happening one and a time, and right now, in your body where you can experience them firsthand. Your anxious thoughts may feel like they’re also right now, but they aren’t. They’re about the hypothetical future and the bygone past. They drag you out of the present into moments that aren’t really happening, and also unlike your breath, aren’t real.
Another fun fact about mindfulness is that it teaches us to observe our emotions, and ideally, to do so non-judgmentally. When it comes to anxiety, this can be a game-changer. If you can simply say to yourself, “This is anxiety/worry/fear, etc.,” you start to recognize that your current state is a passing one. You were there before anxiety arrived, and likewise, you will be there after it leaves. As Pema Chodron said, “You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.” The storm will pass.
This might sound a little nuts until you’ve actually experienced it, and I’m not saying it’s easy. However, it is definitely do-able and worth a shot when you’re in a hyper-stressful moment. Find your breath, and repeat it to yourself: “This is anxiety.” It may not completely evaporate, but I promise you will start to feel more calm.
Other hacks? If your mind wanders back into the red zone when you’re working on this, trying counting your breaths. Inhale to a count of 4, exhale to the same. The numbers give you an extra anchor.
Another great option? Try a guided imagery (scroll down) or visualization exercise. Those are perfect for high-anxiety moments because they remove you momentarily, giving you a chance to level off a little before coming back to find your breath.
No matter which approach(es) you choose, the thing that makes mindfulness ideal for situations like these is that you don’t need anything special or extra to do it. You’ve already got the three main ingredients at your disposal: your intention, your attention, and your breath. All you have to do is choose to use them.
We probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now if you hadn’t already decided that might be a good idea. Just sayin’. ;-)
Inhale. Exhale. Calm. You’ve got this.
Photo credit: Dawid Zawila