Mindful Young Person

3 Ways to Reduce Anxiety

A 10 Minute Read

Anxiety is a word we hear a lot of these days and it seems to be more prevalent at this time of year with exams coming up. Parents often feel overwhelmed too when they see their daughters and sons struggling to cope. We want to be able to fix things for them and reassure them that everything will be OK but of course, we can’t – this is something they have to go through themselves.  

Perhaps our words of comfort don’t echo through because we too are anxious though we are trying to hide it. The chances are our children (and that includes our adult children living with us) pick up on our stress. So what’s the solution?

I’ve been an advocate for living a mindfulness-based lifestyle for some time now. I’ve been a meditation instructor for twelve years but in more recent years, I’ve practised mindfulness as well and have reaped huge benefits from it. The benefits accumulate over time. It doesn’t mean I don’t get stressed or anxious or angry but my practice has built my emotional resilience, which means I bounce back rather quickly and it doesn’t overly impact my life.

That’s all very well, you might think, but knowing if we’d been practising mindfulness for the last few months would help get us through exam stress isn’t much use to us now! Don’t worry there are in-the-moment calming techniques that you can apply to help you better cope with what you are facing now – be it exams, an irate customer or stuck in traffic when you’re already late. 

  1. Breathe 

   16 Seconds to Calm Breathing Technique

No matter where we are, we always have our breath and we can easily use it to slow down a racing pulse. With this simple 16 seconds breathing technique that stress management guru davidji coined, you can do it anywhere and no one will even notice.

Start by taking a long slow deep breath in for the count of 4. 

Hold the breath in for the count of 4.

Then release the breath to the count of 4. 

Hold the breath our for the count of 4. 

By witnessing your breath in this way you are establishing yourself in the present moment with your one pointed awareness on your breath which means you are not focusing on the thing that was making you feel stressed. You are also giving your body a chance to diminish the stress hormones flooding your body. After the 16 seconds, your mind will be clearer and you will have a better mastery of your emotions. This breathing technique is also introducing a pattern interrupt. The pattern interrupt could be an interruption of a negative thought pattern that is compounding our anxiety or it can help us change our reaction to a given situation or person, such as not yelling, or producing a string of profanities or breaking down in a flood of tears.

I’m a big fan of breath work and there are so many techniques we can use to gain clarity, overcome an afternoon slump, or improve focus for sport or studying. You always have your breath – you don’t need an app or to charge your battery – but it will recharge your battery. For this post, I’ve chosen davidji’s 16 seconds but I’d encourage you to look up other techniques and see how quickly you achieve benefits from applying conscious breathing techniques. 

2. Meditate 

Before you say “I can’t meditate” or “I don’t have time to meditate – I have to study!” Hear me out. There are simple and short meditations you can start with to see quick results.

Much of our anxiety is caused by our need to control – our need to control our situation, other people’s reactions, our thoughts. It’s a rookie mistake to think meditation is about controlling our minds and our thoughts. Meditation is about focus but the key is in the surrender. We surrender to the process. We will always have thoughts during meditation – we’re human after all but it’s about witnessing those thoughts, without judgement, letting them go and coming back to our breath or our mantra – whichever meditation method we’ve chosen. The fact that you are sitting still and taking the time to meditate will bring rewards (it’s another pattern interrupt too). Just as we can’t change other people’s attitudes or inevitable stressful situations we face in life – such as exams, we can shift our thoughts, reactions and attitudes. When we react differently to a person or situation often there’s a shift in the energy too. Surrender isn’t about giving up or checking out. For me it’s about making conscious choices, focusing on what I want to achieve, leaning in the direction of that goal (for example if I want to improve my cardio fitness, I’ll set aside time to hike uphill for an extra minute each day rather than sit on the couch watching, Fittest Families) then I’ll surrender to the process and trust.

I can do my best to realise my dreams but as I have no control of the exact outcome I save myself a lot of stress by accepting I’ve no control over it and instead trust the process. I think building a sense of trust is an important life skill. It makes us feel safe in our skin. Basically, we all want to feel safe, be happy and healthy.

When we establish ourselves in the present moment as we do in meditation, we are not ruminating on the past or worrying about the future, which is often the source of much of our anxiety “If I don’t do well in my Leaving Cert everyone will think I’m a loser, I won’t get the CAO course I want, which means I’ll end up in a crappy job for the rest of my life and die poor”. OK so that might be a bit of an exaggeration but you get my drift about over-thinking and catastrophizing.

So Hum Meditation

This is a meditation I teach a part of the Chopra Perfect Health course. So Hum means I Am in Sanskrit. It’s a simple mantra meditation that establishes us in the present moment. It also helps us to be aware of our breath and avoid shallow breathing. 

If you’ve been sitting at a desk or hunched over books, shake your body out. Tense your shoulders, then release and any other part of your body where you feel you might be holding tension. By tensing the muscles and then releasing, the body lets go of tension you may not have been aware you were holding on to. You could also do a quick body scan – it only takes a few seconds  – start with your head and work your way down your body tensing and releasing as you go. Roll your neck, tense your shoulders, arms, tummy, bum, thighs, calves, feet.

  • Get comfortable – comfort is very important- grab a cushion, sit in your favourite seat or propped up in your bed. Unfold your arms and uncross your legs. Minimise disruptions – mute your phone and make sure vibrate is off too. Decide how long you’d like to meditate for. Ten minutes is often a good starting point and if that’s comfortable you can add on a few minutes with the next session, building to fifteen, and then twenty minutes. Don’t force yourself – if five minutes is all you can manage, then great – do it. Five minutes is better than not showing up at all. Set a timer if you like, choosing a gentle sound on low volume. 
  • Close your eyes. 
  • Take in a couple of long slow deep breaths. Try to feel your breath go as far as your belly. Much of our anxiety is accentuated my shallow breathing – that is we don’t breath beyond our upper chest. Just be aware of it, without judgement and see if you can follow your breath a little further with the next breath. 
  • Now silently start repeated the mantra. Mantra means vehicle of the mind (derived from the same words as mind (man) travel, train (tra). The mantra is used as a focus between your thoughts. You can silently repeat the mantra in rhythm with your breath. As you breathe in, silently repeat to yourself the word ‘So’ as you exhale silently repeat the word ‘Hum’. When you notice your mind drifting to thoughts or sounds in your environment, gently come back to the mantra each time without judgement – surrender to the process. There is no goal other than to just sit and be. 
  • When the time is up, sit gently with your eyes closed, bringing your attention to the room, your body.  You might like to wriggle your toes, stretch your arms. When it feels comfortable, open your eyes and continue with your day. I like to add an attitude of gratitude – I say ‘thank you’ – thank you to myself of taking the time for self-care, thank you for being alive and breathing! 

If you’re comfortable you might like to try other mantras or affirmations. Instead of So Hum. you could try I Am, silently repeating I on the in breath and Am on the out breath. You could extend this if you like to include ‘I am safe’ ‘I am enough’ ‘I am loved’ ‘I am love’ Whatever resonates for you. Find your own pace. If coordinating the breath and the mantra isn’t working then just silently repeat the mantra without forcing the breath. Let it flow. 

You can do this meditation at any time you need a pattern interrupt and to reduce stress. However, I have found doing it first thing in the morning means you are more likely to do it and it becomes a routine – just like brushing your teeth. With each meditation, you are building your bank of emotional reserves – one meditation at a time. Also by meditating as soon as you wake you are more likely to do it – before the day starts and you get distracted. By starting our day in stillness and silence we bring some of that calm to our day.

3. Take a Hike

Or whatever your chosen form of exercise is – something you enjoy and requires energy. Even better if it’s an outdoor activity. Exercise is a great way of relieving tension and releasing endorphins – the feel good hormones. Working up a sweat as you hike up a hill not only dissipates toxins, there’s a sense of achievement afterwards too. When I have a problem I’m mulling through, I often just get the dogs’ leads’ out and take off up the mountain. their joy is infectious and again it’s a pattern interrupt. Often I have an ‘a-ha’ moment where I come up with a new idea or an answer comes to me about a problem I’ve been trying to solve. A great way to make the most of your exercise is to do it mindfully. 

Mindful Walking 

  • Take your earphones off and put your phone on silent. 
  • Engage your senses.
  • Listen to the sounds you hear. From the sound of the earth under your shoes to the rustle of leaves or birds singing.
  • Take time to listen for sounds in the distance. Sounds you may not notice if you’re engaged in conversation or otherwise engaged with your screen or music. Try to identify them. 
  • Notice the scents around you. If you are by the sea, for example, inhale the salty air, perhaps there’s seaweed or the scent of broken seashells. If you’re in woodlands, enjoy the mix of scents from the earth, the bark or at this time of year the wild garlic with can bring an unexpected pungent whiff. 
  • Just be. Observe. Witness. 

I often take home a shell from the beach or a pinecone from the woods. I call them my ‘gratitude gifts’ It reminds me to be grateful because having an attitude of gratitude lifts my mood. I have a jar on my desk for the shells and a pyramid of pinecones outside my office window. When I see them it reminds me of the wonder and peace I felt when I picked them up and it brings that sense of peace back to me. 

Of course, you may prefer to put your favourite music on and dance around your bedroom. Music is wonderful for our brains and our well-being. Go for it. 

This is just a snapshot of things you can do to start living mindfully and reduce your anxiety. Hopefully, when you start with these small changes and notice the benefits you’ll feel inclined to look at other areas where you can apply them, such as restful sleep, healthy relationships and eating habits. 

One of the greatest gifts living mindfully brings is knowing there is only one constant and that is change. So whatever you are going through – happy or sad – it will pass. The past is set in stone – you can’t change it so let it go. The future is yet to be and none of us knows what’s around the corner so all we have is the present. You may have no control over your circumstances but you do have the power to choose to engage and react to it in a way that serves you best.  Show up as the best version of you – the authentic you and you’ll rock it.