Anxiety can be described as feeling nervous or scared, which may trigger a physiological response. When feelings of fear or nervousness interfere with your enjoyment of life, you might have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are broken down into five main categories: generalized anxiety, panic disorders, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. While each type of anxiety disorder has its own unique characteristics, they all have a common thread: a sometimes crippling response to certain stimuli.
When an anxiety disorder requires medical attention, western medicine intervenes. The typical treatment for anxiety is a mix of counselling and anti-depressant medication. The group of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (such as Paxil, Celexa or Zoloft) are a popular choice for many doctors. Medications are effective in masking the symptoms of anxiety, but do not provide a permanent solution.
An astute medical practitioner will suggest some kind of therapy or counselling be incorporated into the treatment regime. Many psychologists use a method called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (or CBT), which works by retraining the brain and managing negative thought patterns. CBT has been proven effective for all sorts of disorders – such as panic disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and depression.
The premise of CBT is that negative thoughts affect not only our emotional well-being, but also how we react to situations. If you assume that you are going to fail an exam, you will experience increased anxiety. Anxiety causes not only emotional disturbance, but it elicits a physiological reaction as well. When we experience these feelings, we are likely to feel more anxious and depressed – which creates a snowball effect of negative thought patterns and subsequent reactions. Negative thought patterns are damaging in the long run. If we can create more realistic, positive emotions, we can ease anxiety and depression.
An element of CBT is mindfulness. Mindfulness means bringing your attention to the present. It is not focusing on the past or future – as those thoughts can cause anxiety. When you are in the present, you live and experience every moment.
In this sense, CBT and meditation work hand-in-hand to improve not just your stress levels, but your overall well-being. When we are able to train ourselves to focus on the present – and nothing else – you may find your heart rate slowing, your muscles less tense, and an overall sense of calm.
Once you learn meditative techniques, they will start to penetrate every moment in life. You can train yourself to focus on your breath when you are stuck in rush hour traffic, having an argument with your teenager or dealing with a difficult co-worker.
One of the simplest forms of meditation is sitting quietly and focusing on your breath. Breathe through your nose as you normally would and be still. Your mind will keep wandering, thinking about your busy day or what you are going to make for dinner. When this happens – and it will – refocus on your breath. Start with two sessions per day, each about 20 minutes. Incorporate it into your routine to make it a habit.