As a wellbeing coach and mindfulness teacher, I don’t just share from the theory of mindfulness, but from my own experience too. Here’s my own story about how mindfulness and self-kindness transformed my relationship with anxiety – from outright war, to acceptance and befriending. This process unfolded for me some years ago, and I’ve included excerpts from the personal journal (in italics) that I was writing at the time. I hope this gives you an idea of mindful learning in action. The freedom and relief I discovered during this period of my life were in fact what motivated me to train as a mindfulness teacher.
For many years I’d struggled with anxiety, and when I experienced recurrent miscarriages, it seemed to intensify those feelings. When our son was 18 months old, we suffered particularly devastating loss, which seemed to ratchet up my anxiety to new levels. I was terrified of losing my son aswell, and I felt surrounded by threats to his safety. I came to a point where I was hardly sleeping because I was getting up so often to check on him. Routine tasks were taking me a long time: I would become paralysed, trapped in extra measures designed to eliminate any imagined risk. I also began to worry that my son would pick up on my anxiety and feel the world wasn’t a safe place.
One day, I had what I call a ‘What if?’ moment. Faced with an everyday situation, I stood paralysed, calculating how I could eliminate any risk (bear with me if you’ve never suffered anxiety – I know that may not sound logical). And I suddenly wondered – ‘What would it be like to be free of all this, to just do these everyday tasks without a second thought? What would a life that be like?’ This moment planted a seed of possibility. Mindfulness had already helped me to cope with a level of sadness that I’d never have thought I could withstand. So I wondered if I could also turn to my mindfulness practice to help with the anxiety I was experiencing.
Being a coach, I knew I’d have to build my confidence up slowly. I decided to take small opportunities in daily life to challenge my usual responses. That instead of always taking action to eliminate tiny or non-existent risks, I would practice noticing that and delaying my reaction. I identified typical situations that I wanted to handle differently, and I used a journal to record my experiences both during meditations and in life. My dream outcome was that “I would be a confident and relaxed parent. I would be able to do practical tasks with less effort, leaving me with more energy for having fun as a family. “
Soon, my awareness of what was happening in anxiety-provoking situations was increasing. I found that during challenging situations, I was able to pause, and create just the tiniest bit of space before reacting. And in that space, sometimes I could find a new way of seeing things, or the courage to do nothing, and wait for the clouds of panic to clear.
I was making room for a more balanced response. Here’s what I wrote just after one such situation. “I was able to see that it was my anxiety I needed to tolerate, not an actual risk. Maybe this is what learning to trust feels like.” Mindfulness gives us more choice about how we respond to difficulty. In my case I began making a choice between avoidant behaviours (which protected me from feeling anxiety), and ‘letting things go’ which exposed me to difficult feelings, but which I often felt was healthier all round for my son. The fact that my ‘anxiety’ behaviours became a choice – rather than an unquestioned necessity – felt extremely liberating in itself.
I began relying on mindfulness to help me ‘ride out’ the intense waves of anxiety. I would bring my attention to my breathing and try to just stay in the present moment rather than going into an imaginary and catastrophic future. Then, I noticed “it’s like I can actually feel it start to subside physically. Like it’s the physical ‘fight or flight’ response that’s been triggered, and that’s what changes and subsides. “ All this time, I’d felt like the key to reducing anxiety was to control external events, and now I was learning that I didn’t need to exhaust myself doing that!
Self-kindness also became crucial to letting my anxious feelings pass without getting trapped in avoidant behaviours. At the time I reflected that “When I tolerate the anxiety, it’s like letting that part of me have a voice, listening to it and validating it. Once it’s been heard, it doesn’t need to shout at me any more. And that’s the moment that the feeling of anxiety starts to subside. It’s when I don’t want to listen, and get locked in a battle to shut out or disprove that voice, that I get stuck in anxiety and feel trapped and suffocated.”
This was the first time I began to understand what is meant by ‘befriending’ difficult feelings: “It was as if I had to first accept myself – all the parts of myself, including the anxious, the perfectionist and the vulnerable parts – and give them compassion just as they are, instead of believing that I only deserve compassion when I’ve calmed down/have fixed things/am feeling good about myself.”
The impact of self-kindness is evident in my journey, as I noticed that “All the time I’m getting braver at tolerating my anxious thoughts and impulses without always acting on them, and more compassionate with myself when I do act on them”. I found that the anxious part of me was only one part of me – and another voice would kick in saying ‘you can do this, you can cope’. And I started to believe it.
Following these realisations, I noted in my journal that “I’m not putting off unpleasant tasks. I’m accepting that I find them unpleasant, noticing the anxiety but doing things more efficiently – as I lose less time fighting with myself and just get on with it. At the same time I’m being aware of my feelings, and encouraging myself compassionately for doing them even though I find them difficult.” So tasks that had once seemed ‘too much’ had now become perceived as merely ‘unpleasant’.
Over time, my perspective became that “I just feel much less ‘at war’ with myself in general in terms of my anxiety levels – like I’m struggling with myself much less, like I have space to breathe. It just feels like less of an issue than it has been – like my anxiety isn’t interfering with living so much.”
I discovered that with a foundation of self-kindness in place, I was finally able to apply mindfulness skills to transform my relationship with anxiety. I don’t tend to describe this journey as ‘overcoming’ anxiety, as I don’t see it like that anymore: I’ve released myself from that struggle with it. Now, when feelings of anxiety arise, I can embrace them as a part of my overall emotional landscape, and recognise they are just one of the full range of emotions that we human beings naturally experience. I no longer feel trapped by these feelings, nor do they prevent me from living fully. To me, this is the true freedom we can find in the practices of self-kindness and mindfulness.
Note – it may not be advisable to learn mindfulness for the first time if you are currently experiencing debilitating anxiety, and you may need therapeutic support from a health professional.