Mindfulness and Anxiety: Using Mindfulness to Decrease Worry and Create Greater Joy
By: Mayer Solomon, LCSW-C
Do you ever feel like you’re not really in charge of what you think about? Maybe you keep worrying how things will work out, or you judge yourself about past choices.
Steve used to be quite anxious and was dragged wherever his worry thoughts took him.
“Am I saying the wrong thing? Are people going to think I’m not smart?”
He had a hard time enjoying things. He’d be out at a nice restaurant, but stuck in the past.
“Did I pick the wrong restaurant? Should I have ordered a different menu item? Did I deserve to get my way?”
He’d often find himself worrying about things beyond his control. He’d be at work and get pulled into the future.
“Will I know what to say at the meeting tomorrow? Will I get out of work on time? Will I be able to find parking?”
Now when Steve’s worry or guilt turns on, he knows how to take charge of his mind. He has less worry, enjoys life more, and feels more confident. He began practicing Mindfulness to become the director of his thoughts.
Mindfulness in Action
Mindfulness is about focusing your attention:
Bring Attention to the Present Moment
When you focus on the past you likely feel regret and depression. Similarly, when your attention goes to the future, you’ll usually end up thinking “what if!” and be left with a sense of anxiety and worry.
By bringing your attention to the present moment you can help yourself feel better and accomplish more. The present moment is the only moment that we actually have any control over. If you feel bad about the past, you can make amends in the present moment. If you want the future to go well, it’s in the present moment that you can prepare.
Focus on One Thing
Have you ever eaten a ton of chocolate while watching TV and been like, “Hey...Where’d all my chocolate go!?” Because your focus was split and not intentioned you missed the potential pleasure in that experience (but still got all the calories)!
The next time you’re eating chocolate take a moment to bring your full attention to the texture, smell, look, and taste of it. You might be surprised how much taste and pleasure is actually in each bite.
Focusing on one thing in the moment helps decrease both emotional and physical pain. Is the glass half full or half empty? It’s both, but how you feel will depend on which part of the glass you choose to focus your attention on.
Observe the Moment Non-Judgmentally: Choose Acceptance
You may think being harsh on yourself will prevent you from doing something regrettable again, but in reality what helps you change is:
When you fail a test or get embarrassed in a social situation, it’s not the beating yourself up that helps, it’s the being aware and doing something differently. Judgment really does two things that are problematic:
Instead of judgment, practice Acceptance. We hear that word thrown around a lot, but it’s often misunderstood. Acceptance is not about approving of or even liking something that didn’t go well or that we regret; acceptance is about not fighting reality.
When we fight reality, we lose. The more we accept the moment we are stuck in, the more we have the ability to think and problem solve. Trying to fight reality often makes the situation worse and leads to suffering. Said differently: Pain + Non Acceptance = Suffering.
Acceptance is about “being in the present moment as it is” and making the most of it. If we are experiencing emotional pain, acceptance is about recognizing “I am in pain now, but if I choose effectively in the present moment, I can decrease my pain.”
Often times there are multiple things you can focus on in any given moment, so how do you decide what to focus on? Effectiveness is about doing what works-- focusing your attention on what will help. For example if you’re at a restaurant with friends and someone you don’t like is there, you can get caught up in them, or you can keep refocusing your attention to the people you are enjoying being with.
You might wonder, if my attention is in the present moment, how do I repair mistakes from the past, or how do I prepare for the future.
It’s effective to reflect on the past and learn from it, but once your reflecting becomes “dwelling” on the past or getting caught up in what I “should” have done, your mind is no longer in an effective place. If you notice this happening, invite your attention back to what’s effective in the present moment.
Similarly, recognizing you need to prepare for something in the future is important, but “worrying” about the future is not. Once you know what you need to do, then you want to bring your attention to what you can do in the present moment. If you have a job interview tomorrow, it doesn’t help to worry about whether the interviewer will like you or not. Instead it’ll be more effective to identify concrete ways to prepare for the interview, and then focus your energy on doing that preparation.
Strengthening Your Mind’s Attention Muscle to Help Relieve Anxiety
By learning skills to focus your attention in the present moment, you can create greater joy and pleasure in your life. Think of your attention as a muscle, if you haven’t worked it out, it won’t be as strong as you need it to be. Mindfulness helps you strengthen your minds attention muscle so you can feel better and connect to greater joy in your life.
Wishing you the best on your mindfulness journey,
Mayer and The Team
Want to learn more about decreasing judgment and self-criticism?
You’ll like this audio lecture... Stopping Judgment and Self-Criticism from a DBT Perspective
Acknowledgments: The above ideas are based on the work of Dr. Marsha Linehan and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Thank you to Dr. Linehan and my DBT teachers. Want to learn more about how DBT can help you? Visit our DBT page.
By Erich Kauffman, LCPC
While having a family member in active addiction can be quite a harrowing experience, what many people don’t realize is that having a family member in recovery has its own set of challenges and relationship traps.
If someone in your family is in recovery, they’re not the only one who needs to take care of themselves: Make sure to take care of yourself in this process, too. Anticipating the challenges can help you be more resilient to them. Below are six common difficulties that couples and families may encounter while their loved one is in recovery.
1. The Emotional Rollercoaster and Post-Acute Withdrawal
Many (but not all) people in early recovery feel like they are on an emotional rollercoaster. They are experiencing feelings they haven’t felt for months and years. Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) is experienced by many people in early recovery and can contribute to the emotional rollercoaster. PAWS can last for up to 18 months. It consists of having heightened stress sensitivity and anxiety, low energy and depression, impaired concentration and short-term memory loss, poor coordination and balance, and sleep disturbance.
As a family member, you may wonder: “Is this how sobriety looks?” and “Will I have to get used to him/her having angry outbursts or debilitating anxiety?” You may even question whether recovery is a good idea.
How to Take Care of Yourself
Know that these are all normal thoughts and feelings to have. Your loved one is still in the process of stabilization. Be patient with them and with yourself. If, however, this stage continues or appears to be unusually intense, your family member may require a medication designed to treat PAWS and/or additional support (e.g. individual therapy, sober support). If you are unsure if the severity of symptoms are normal, check in with your support network, including your family member’s doctor and/or professional care provider.
2. Dealing with Your Loved One’s Absence
If you felt that your family member wasn’t present during active addiction, be prepared to have some of those same feelings in recovery. Recovery is most effective as a fully immersive experience. That means your loved one may be attending multiple sober support meetings a week, meeting with a sponsor, attending formal outpatient rehab treatment, and/or seeing an individual therapist.
How to Take Care of Yourself
Recovery is a major time commitment! It is important to understand that as your loved one’s recovery progresses the time commitment will not be as intense. However, there are some people in long-term recovery (e.g. 30 years sober) who still attend one meeting a day.
Even though your family member may not be around as much as you may like, the time that you spend together can now be quality time. Hopefully, when your loved one is available they will now be mentally present and emotionally engaged in your relationship.
3. Difficulty with Changing Roles
Families can get quite used to the roles each respective member of the family plays. Even if you were unhappy with certain roles you or your family members were playing, the bottom line is that change is uncomfortable!
You may have grown used to “over-functioning” in the relationship, while your loved one was “under-functioning.” For example, while your partner was in active addiction you may have become used to them “going with the flow” with family decisions. They could do that because they were intoxicated. But now that they are sober they will likely assert themselves and their true opinions. This may cause some conflict where there wasn’t any before.
Another common example involves the re-introduction of a parent into the family system. If a parent was physically or emotionally absent while they were in active addiction, children will need to get used to their sober parent setting limits and directing the show. Likewise, their spouse will have to get used to parenting as a team if they have been used to parenting alone.
How to Take Care of Yourself
Addiction is often called a “family disease.” Likewise, recovery requires a family effort. It takes patience, open communication, and a willingness to be flexible and adapt to new roles. Any time a family learns a “new dance” the initial attempts may seem awkward or downright messy. With time, open discussion, and education, your family can heal.
4. Being Challenged to Grow, Too
As your loved one starts to get healthy, the spotlight may turn on you. At times, you may feel intimidated by the progress your loved one is making.
Your initial reaction to such a suggestion may be anger (and fear); you may be insulted and feel blamed for your family member’s addiction. You may feel that it is your loved one’s responsibility to make things right. These are normal feelings to have.
How to Take Care of Yourself
As your loved one is learning: “feelings are not facts.” The facts here are that all people have areas in their life that they can refine and heal. Are there some areas of growth that you can explore and begin to work on? The healthier you can be and become, the smoother the path of recovery for you and your loved one. A guiding principle in recovery is to focus on “keeping your side of the street clean.”
5. Ineffective Unloading of Past Anger and Resentments
Finally, your loved one has accepted help and is on the road to recovery. It’s very common for family members to feel a strong urge to unload all their anger and resentments. Now that they’re finally listening, you want them to know how it really was.
The overall sense of disconnection, betrayal, and powerlessness you felt while your loved one was in active addiction may have been overwhelming and even traumatic. As a family member, you may have pleaded and begged for your loved one to change and enter into recovery. Your pain may have built up for years and years, and it’s normal for you to want to share it. The difficulty with sharing such emotions in early recovery is that it may be emotionally overwhelming, shaming or even relapse-triggering for your loved one.
How to Take Care of Yourself
It’s important for both you and your loved one’s recovery to be heard and to express what you went through. Doing so in a productive manner and with the right timing is the key. Having an outside person or professional to process your feelings with, like a therapist or a sponsor, can help you process feelings before discussing it with your loved one. Sometimes people find that once they discuss with an outside person the need to share it with their loved one dissipates. For other people, the emotions may be so intense that having a third party in the room may help facilitate those discussions.
6. Relapse Anxiety
Having intense or underlying fear about potential relapse is very common. Most likely, your loved one also has anxiety surrounding the possibility of relapse. Thoughts like “Well, when will the other shoe drop?” or “Is he high right now? He does look kind of tired…” are to be expected.
What is vitally important in this process is that you learn to manage and express that anxiety. People in early recovery often struggle with being unnecessarily accused of relapse. Similarly, feeling overly controlled or “treated like a baby” can be emotionally overwhelming. It is not uncommon for family members to use anger and guilt to motivate their loved one to maintain sobriety. These reactions and strategies stem from relapse anxiety. What is paradoxical is that they can unintentionally trigger a relapse!
How to Take Care of Yourself
There are different strategies that family members use to help decrease relapse anxiety. Clear communication with your loved one about expectations and accountability measures can greatly reduce anxiety. Accountability measures may include having consent to discuss your loved one’s progress in treatment, access to bank accounts, an agreement that if you suspect a relapse you have permission to breathalyze or drug test, or an agreement about acceptable boundaries (e.g. curfew, treatment attendance etc.)
It is also helpful to have an open discussion about relapse warning signs. Relapse is a process, not an event. Relapse warning signs are the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that precede a relapse. If you know what to be on the lookout for that increases accountability and decreases anxiety. Typical warning signs include isolation, decreased treatment/meeting attendance, emotional outbursts, dishonesty, and engaging in high-risk situations.
If relapse anxiety persists you may want to consider developing your own support in this process, such as individual therapy or attending family support groups. This may be an opportune time to reflect on the role that anxiety has played in your life in general.
Lastly, remember that the process of recovery requires tremendous patience. Over time trust will be rebuilt, and you will not always have to live with the intense fear of relapse.
Resources for Extra Support
You are also in the process of recovering from living with your loved one’s active addiction. Your loved one is learning to ask for help and seek support. You need to do the same.
There are many options to get the education, support and self-care you need.
Ask a Couples Therapist:“How Do I Stop ‘Normal’ Conversations With My Partner From Turning into Fights?”
Do you feel like it backfires whenever you try to talk to your partner about something that’s bothering you? Maybe you don't want to be alone with what you’re feeling, or your partner did something that upset you. When you try to talk to them it never seems to be the right time.
Do You and Your Partner Keep Missing Each Other?
When it comes to communication, timing is everything. Spontaneous talking can backfire! Let’s take this as an example:
John walks in the door after a long day at work. He’s upset that his boss was controlling and demanding. He sees his wife, Claire, who has just started the night time routine with the kids. John’s upset about work so he starts talking about his day. He’s looking for some validation, but Claire responds with frustration.
John walks away feeling frustrated-- “I’m not a priority to her”
Claire leaves feeling unappreciated-- “I can’t believe he doesn’t get how many things I am juggling”
Later that same night, Claire is ready to sit down and relax as John is working on a late night proposal for work. Ready to unwind, she wants to tell John about her own work day and the great project that was just assigned to her, but John barely even hears her talking. Argh! John and Claire keep missing each other.
Why Do Conversations Go Wrong?
We all need and deserve to be listened to and validated by our spouses, but too often conversations go wrong because it's not a good time to talk. Trying to talk about a sensitive topic at the wrong time is like expecting classical music to sound good while playing football, or like getting your nails done while gardening.
Coordinating a good time to talk is the answer, but you’re not used to explicitly coordinating with each other. Maybe you think your partner should know what you need. Maybe you don’t realize that your partner is having a hard time because of your own feelings that you're grappling with.
The “We Need To Talk Now” vs “Can We Talk Later [read as: Never]” Couple Dynamic
Sometime people are afraid to coordinate because they are stuck in a Pursue/Avoid pattern. The pursuing partner doesn't want to wait – they have been waiting FOREVER and it feels like their avoidant spouse is never going to come around. The avoidant partner doesn't want to talk now – they feel the other person ALWAYS wants to talk and won't ever let it go.
You deserve to be listened to and your partner deserves the space they need to relax. Both your needs are valid. By coordinating you can both get what you need.
How to Gently and Assertively Let Your Partner Know You Need to Talk
The next time you need to get something off your chest, take a peek at how your partner is doing. If it doesn't seem like a good time, then coordinate. Not sure how? Here are some great phrases you can use…
How to Kindly and Clearly Tell Your Partner You Need Some Space
If you’re on the other side, and your partner is asking for something and you can't be present with them, then coordinate. It can feel stressful to have to say “No” to your partner, so here are some phrases to help...
Your Needs Are Important. Don’t Give Up!
These above phrases are helpful because they allow you to clearly express your needs, but they aren’t a magic button. Sometimes it takes a few back and forths-- if you ask your husband when he can talk, and he says in 2 months, don't give up! Both of your needs are important. Instead say, “I know you need a break, and at the same time we have to talk about this sooner than that; how about at the end of the week?
Don't give up if you try to coordinate a time and your timing needs don't match up on the first attempt. It might take a few back and forths to come up with a mutual time.
I recently told a psychiatrist I know that when working with clients I focus on emotion, to which he asked “doesn't all therapy focus on emotion?” Of course his question was a good one, because good therapy seeks to improve how people feel. After all, the reason most people seek therapy is because they are experiencing some sort of troublesome emotion. The million dollar question is, how do you help someone ‘feel’ better and what’s the most direct route to getting there. Focusing on the emotional experience of a situation and deepening one’s understanding of that emotion, leads to greater clarity about what he or she longs for and how to get there.
Our emotions help us organize our responses to situations and provide important information about what we want and desire. Sometimes we experience difficult emotions that need our attention and love, but instead we take a judgmental approach against our emotions and criticize ourselves. Honoring difficult emotions, although counter-intuitive is a crucial part of emotional health. Avoid mud-fights with your difficult feelings. Even if you win, you’ll still end up dirty. Instead, ask your difficult feeling, how can I bring you healing? Let your valid emotions guide you.
Here’s an example. Have you ever been sad about anything? Let’s say you applied for the job of your dreams and you got rejected. You get that rejection letter in the mail and you feel sad. It makes sense that you feel sad-- something that was important to you was blocked from you. And although feeling sad is not a pleasant feeling, it’s important to honor and recognize the sadness you feel. That sadness is a message to you; it’s saying “I didn’t get something I want and I want something more in my life.” If you ignore that sadness and say “Ahh, who cares” you’ll likely give up on your journey toward that which you truly desire. If instead of subverting your feelings and judging yourself for feeling sad, you recognize that you're hurting for a completely valid reason - you want something more for yourself - you’ll be more likely to move forward and problem solve effective ways to diminish your sadness (i.e. improve your resume, get more training, etc) so you can get the job you want.
Love is a constant process of tuning in, connecting, missing and misreading cues, disconnecting, repairing and finding a deeper connection. It is a dance of meeting and parting and finding each other again. Minute to minute and day to day.
We have many names for aspects of our feelings that often stem from shame: low self-esteem, low self-confidence, self-doubt, feeling inadequate, and more. Even anxiety can stem from shame and feeling "different." When we work up the trust to talk about our shame, we can find out that we are not alone and that "I am enough."
Mindfulness is about focusing one's attention, non-judgmentally, in the present moment. It's about awareness and paying attention in a way that makes experiencing life more enjoyable, and in difficult times more bearable. When we turn our mind to the future, it often creates anxiety and worry about what will be. When we turn our mind to the past, it often leads to regret and depression about what we "should have" done. By focusing on the present moment, without judgment of how the moment "should" be, we are better able to embrace reality as it is and either accept or change it as appropriate. Mindfulness can be a helpful way to deal with difficult emotions.
Relieving the Suffering of Anger
The following Mindfulness writing by Thich Nhat Hanh is a beautiful application of mindfulness for help with anger...
The first function of mindfulness is to recognize, not to fight. "Breathing in, I know that anger has manifested in me. Hello, my little anger." And breathing out, "I will take good care of you."
Once we have recognized our anger, we embrace it. This is the second function of mindfulness and it is a very pleasant practice. Instead of fighting, we are taking good care of our emotion. If you know how to embrace your anger, something will change.
It is like cooking potatoes. You cover the pot and then the water will begin to boil. You must keep the stove on for at least twenty minutes for the potatoes to cook. Your anger is a kind of potato and you cannot eat a raw potato.
Mindfulness is like the fire cooking the potatoes of anger. The first few minutes of recognizing and embracing your anger with tenderness can bring results. You get some relief. Anger is still there, but you do not suffer so much anymore, because you know how to take care of your baby. So the third function of mindfulness is soothing, relieving. Anger is there, but it is being taken care of. The situation is no longer in chaos, with the crying baby left all alone. The mother is there to take care of the baby and the situation is under control.
Couples, Family, and Individual Therapy in Mount Washington, Baltimore, Maryland.