People with anxiety disorders need to become skilled with relaxation methods so they can have confidence in their ability to reduce anxiety. The greater the confidence, the less fear they typically have of the anxiety itself and the more they can focus on the situation. Less fear about experiencing anxiety tends to reduce the frequency and intensity of the anxiety for those with Panic Disorder. For those with Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Social Anxiety Disorder, these methods improve the coping with the feared situations.
The deep relaxation methods, such as guided imagery, can increase the overall skill of using relaxation for anxiety reduction. The more you practice these techniques, the more effective you become at relaxing your body. I once worked with a woman who had Panic Disorder who learned to stop a panic attack in less than two minutes by imagining sitting on the boulder by the stream from the Meadow Relaxation. Her body had become so conditioned to being relaxed at that point in the audio that just picturing sitting on the boulder would cause her body to immediately start relaxing. However, such skill required many times of listening to that audio.
Ideally, I recommend practicing guided imagery audios once a day for 15-20 minutes. However, many people complain of the time involved so I recognize that most of my clients don't practice that frequently. Generally, the research shows that practicing 2-3 times a week can provide the necessary skill as well as the psychological and physical health benefits (Carlson, 2012). When you choose to practice is up to you. Some people like to use the relaxation audios before bed to help with sleep whereas others like to use them to start the day in a more relaxed state.
Mindfulness is the state of being presently aware and not distracted by unnecessary thoughts. I make this distinction regarding “unnecessary thoughts” because we can be mindful while thinking, planning, talking, or any other activity. But we aren't being mindful when engaged in unnecessary thoughts.
Unnecessary thoughts usually involve unnecessary emotions. Research finds that happy people tend to engage in “useful” emotions (Tamir and Ford, 2012). In other words, they can feel the full range of emotions but only when the present circumstances elicit the emotions. They feel negative emotions when appropriate to the situation but do not choose to feel negative emotions when they are not useful.
How do you know then thoughts or emotions are unnecessary? Typically, thoughts that are future-oriented or past-oriented are unnecessary. Obviously, this isn't a black-and-white rule because future thoughts related to planning how to achieve goals or past-oriented thoughts related to evaluating why a problem occurred may be necessary. Rather, it involves thoughts such as catastrophic fears about the future or regrets about the past.
I often remind my clients with anxiety and depression not to grieve the future. So often I see people who are fretting over something that might or might not happen and cause themselves to be miserable in the present. Feeling unhappy about something that hasn't happened and may not occur is ab unnecessary emotion. However, if the present involves unpleasant or tragic events that create grief, then such emotions are “necessary” and “useful.” Grief is useful because it is a healing process to help us cope with loss.
To learn mindfulness it is best to already have some familiarity and skill with the relaxation methods. Mindfulness is a simple practice but it is a more advanced method because it is developing the ability to tolerate all aspects of the present experience even when the experience may be unpleasant. However, right now we are focusing on basic mindfulness practice and later I will describe more advanced practice.
To begin mindfulness training, start by practicing for short durations of 1-2 minutes but practice many times throughout the day. The nice thing about practicing mindfulness is that you do not need to stop whatever you are doing to practice the technique. In fact, it is important to incorporate it into your daily activities.
The main focus of mindfulness practice is learning how to manage the distracting “unnecessary” thoughts and emotions. However, the idea is not to try to rid yourself of these thoughts but just to let them “be” and to gently refocus your attention back to your present experience.
Excel At Life's website provides many audios (with transcripts) describing being mindfully present during a variety of different activities that you can do throughout the day. The audios are meant to give you an idea of how to focus your attention but are not meant to be used as the mindfulness practice itself. The mindfulness practice is using what you learn from the audios (or transcripts) to help you practice the mindfulness during different activities throughout your day. The reason for this is that true mindfulness is “experiencing” what the audios are describing. However, if you are thinking “I need to pay attention to ….” then you are not experiencing the activity but are thinking about the activity. However, as a first step, the audios can help you learn to focus your attention to create mindful awareness.
For the basic mindfulness training, start with the audios that seem most pleasant to you. Learning to be mindfully aware of unpleasant aspects of your present experience is beneficial for anxiety but a more advanced technique to learn later.
I think of emotion training as learning how to elicit the emotions that you need at a particular time in a particular situation so as to reduce the “unnecessary” emotions. So many people feel that the spontaneous expression of emotions is out of their control. However, that is not true. We often control our emotions depending upon the circumstances. For instance, have you ever been in a heated argument with someone and you answer your phone and say very pleasantly “Hi, how are you?” even though just seconds before you were seething with anger? If so, in that instance you were engaging in emotion control.
My interest in sport psychology made me much more aware of the need for emotional control. When an athlete is engaged in an event, he or she needs to be fully focused on the event no matter what may have happened in their lives just prior to the event or in their previous performance during the event. However, emotional control is not just the mindfulness techniques of being presently aware and focused. Emotional control is also about eliciting the emotions that are most beneficial at the time. For instance, an athlete may need to elicit emotions of confidence and calmness. Or depending upon the event, the athlete may need to elicit emotions of intensity and power.
I realized this same ability is particularly important for people with anxiety and depression. For instance, someone with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder often feels controlled by their emotions. Therefore, learning how to elicit the useful emotions to handle a situation and reduce the unnecessary emotions in that situation is beneficial. This is different than suppression of emotions because it is a choice based upon the needs of the situation rather than an avoidance.
The Rainbow Relaxation is a good audio to help learn emotional control. The website has two different versions: one for managing anxiety and one for athletes. In addition, the Loving Kindness and Compassion meditations help with developing emotional control. The mindfulness training previously discussed can improve this ability as well.
Meditation can take many different forms but the commonality is an intense inner focus. The method of meditation you use is not important—use whatever method appeals to you. Some people use meditative prayer. Some people use specific methods such as Transcendental Meditation. Excel At Life provides two meditations from the Buddhist psychology tradition: Loving Kindness and Compassion. The Compassion Meditation is more advanced so it is best to start with the Loving Kindness Meditation.
Meditation is different from relaxation in that it is more contemplative and more purely inner awareness. However, there can be cross-over between the two. For instance, you may begin with relaxation to help enter the meditative state. Meditation often requires greater skill or ability to focus inward than relaxation so it is good to learn the basic relaxation skills prior to pursuing meditation.
For those with relaxation-induced anxiety, it is not a good idea to begin relaxation training with meditation as some forms of meditation have a higher likelihood of causing anxiety in those susceptible (Astin et al., 2003). In fact, for those who have no experience with relaxation, some types of deep meditation can be somewhat disconcerting. It is usually best to start with the other methods of relaxation training prior to pursuing meditation. READ MORE: page 5
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Dr. Monica Frank