Can You Escape Your Thoughts?

With anxiety, repetitive thoughts, worries and rumination can become intense. It’s easy to feel like a prisoner to these thoughts and worries without any way to control them or make them stop. Some of these thoughts we can recognize as being extreme but others can seem so real, so inescapable….so us.

Here’s a little experiment. Sit down if you aren’t already, put your feet flat on the ground. Close your eyes and take a few slow breaths. Let your attention focus on your body from your feet to the top of your head. Notice any sensations, thoughts or emotions.  No need to change anything, just simply take a moment to notice what’s there.  Are any of these sensations, thoughts or emotions familiar?

Likely you noticed something during that experiment; so if you are your body sensations, thoughts or emotions, who was doing the noticing? Yoga, mindfulness and other self-reflective practices would say that it’s our Self (with a capital S) doing the noticing and that the sensations, thoughts and emotions are just parts of us that come and go depending on how our personal filters interpret the world around us.

Who cares? you might ask. Well the good news here is that if we are more than our thoughts, emotions and body sensations we have the possibility of learning to simply notice these vacillating parts of ourselves without being so impacted by their sometimes random nature. Given that anxiety is to a large degree created by being overwhelmed by thoughts, emotions and body sensations, this is good news indeed.

This idea may not be new to you, but I think it’s an idea worth revisiting because knowing something as an idea and knowing something as an experience are two very different things. Cultivating the ability to just notice our thoughts, emotions and body sensations without jumping down the rabbit hole with them, requires a lot of practice and commitment. This journey is no quick-fix solution, but a long term, deep internal transformation.

So maybe this is something you already practice, but if you don’t and would like to, there are a number of different ways to start (this is just a short idea list)

  • Guided mindfulness meditation (click here to receive our 15 minute meditation FREE)
  • Sitting meditation (try the 3 Minute Meditation Experiment)
  • Yoga or tai chi, many great instructors located in both Richmond and Squamish, BC

I’d love to hear what you sorts of things have worked for you, please feel free to leave a comment.

How to Change your Brain

In my last post I mentioned the 3-Minute Meditation Experiment which is an experiment with mindfulness. I decided it would be good to talk a bit more about why mindfulness practices can be so useful in relation to anxiety.

Research in neuroscience has identified many areas of the brain that are related to anxiety including the amygdala (hub for incoming sensory signals and interpreting them), the hippocampus (encodes threatening events into memories), and the prefrontal cortex (helps to moderate the amygdala – emotional regulation).  So if the prefrontal cortex is not effectively moderating the amygdala there is likely to be excessive anxiety and events are more likely to be interpreted as threatening and encoded in the memory as such.

Regular mindfulness practices have been shown to help re-wire these areas of the brain increasing gray-matter density in the hippocampus and thickening the cerebral cortex associated with attention and emotional integration.  These changes in the brain are associated with increased feelings of calmness, less anxiety, more ability to relax.

So whatever your thoughts are about mindfulness, if you experience anxiety it might be worthwhile to run your own experiment for a couple of months. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about how to do this.

Thoughts on mindfulness? Please share your comments!

3-Minute Meditation Experiment

Once anxiety takes hold, our nervous system escalates and it can feel like being trapped in a tidal wave. Becoming more aware of the thoughts and emotions that can lead to nervous system escalation is a key step in anxiety management.

One tool that can help you to experiment with gaining awareness of your nervous system  is meditation. Now I know that word can set off reactions in people so I’ll clarify what I mean by it. I like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness meditation: “paying attention in a particular way on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Easier said than done you might think, and for most of us the non-judgmentally part is especially challenging. It can be tricky to simply observe ourselves without evaluating or judging. There is no ‘right’ way to do this, only figuring out what the experience is like for you.

The aim is just to gather data about your experience, not necessarily to be relaxed. The 3 Minute Meditation experiment is a way to help you get more familiar with your interior space which is part of the journey towards figuring out how to manage your nervous system escalation.

Here are the steps:

  1. Get something to write on: journal, notes in iPhone, download our meditation tracking form
  2. Set aside 3 minutes at the same time each day for 5 days
  3. Find a timer you can set for 3 minutes (there is a free Meditation Timer App available)
  4. Sit on the floor or on a chair
  5. Close your eyes and just notice the breath moving in and out of your nose, or notice the sounds around you.
  6. Not to worry when your thoughts wonder, just gently come back to the breath or the sounds around you.
  7. After you sit for 3 minutes take a moment to write down what you noticed
  • What thoughts did you notice? E.g. ‘Is this ever going to end’, ‘I find this relaxing’, ‘I think this is stupid’, whatever you notice
  • Did you notice any feelings? E.g. ‘a part of me is angry’, a part of me is impatient’, ‘a part of me is happy’
  • Where there any sensations in your body? E.g. tingling, tension, relaxation, temperature, itchiness, etc

Feel free to ask questions or to post about your experience with the experiment.