“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” ― Thích Nhất Hạnh
You’re sitting in a meeting at work and ever so gently and tactfully you express an opinion differing from the general consensus. “I’m sorry, Bob but I have to disagree with you. I think we should have the company retreat in Martha’s Vineyard, instead of the Hamptons this year.” The response is vague, non-committal, “Thanks for your input. We’ll consider that.”
“Oh no! What did I just do,” you think. “They hate me now and I’m going to get fired. They won’t give me a good reference, so no one else will ever hire me. I won’t be able to pay my rent and eventually I’ll have to move back in with my parents. We argue about everything and it’s only a matter of time before I end up committing a double homicide when they tell me, a grown-up, that I can’t stay out late on a school night. I’ll go to prison and orange may very well be the new black, but it’s just not my color and prison food is disgusting! At least I’ll lose weight but will I have to join a gang? What if no one in prison likes me and I end up getting shanked in the showers?”
Just like that, you’ve sent yourself into a panic, the adrenaline is soaring and you’ve completely zoned out, missing the end of the meeting (they decided you were right about Martha’s Vineyard, by the way).
Okay, this might be a slight exaggeration of how outlandish your anxious thoughts get but for some of us, it’s not too far from the truth. We can spin out pretty quickly, going from a completely ordinary situation to a doomsday scenario. So, how do you make it stop?
The first step is to realize that you don’t have to make it stop. It may seem counter-intuitive but fighting against the feelings of panic and anxiety can actually make them worse. If I tell you NOT to think about pink elephants dancing ballet, what’s the first thing that pops into your head?
I’ll give you a minute to get the Nutcracker Suite out of your head. Take your time….I’ll wait.
It’s the same with any negative, repetitive thought that you would rather not have. Telling yourself NOT to think about something makes it more likely that you will. Instead of fighting your anxiety producing thoughts, try letting them come, with the awareness that they won’t last forever. As the thoughts come, acknowledge that they’re there and then gently, without beating yourself up (which will only create more anxiety) guide your mind back to the present moment. Remind yourself, where you are, what you’re doing and what is happening around you at this moment. This is how you begin to practice mindfulness.