Anxiety's Enemy: Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Anxiety is real.
It’s a hungry monster that lives on thoughts of the past and concerns for the future. It comes and goes as it pleases leaving whole regions ravaged in its blind thrashing wake. Yet like a fever dream the monster turns out to be the size of a hamster running its wheel frantically going nowhere.
But still somehow inescapable.
Good news is, anxiety has an achilles heel. The present. Awareness. Mindfulness. Active self reflection. Anxiety can’t stand the sight of a mirror.
Remember this: we can’t control what happens—but we can control how we think and react. It starts with awareness and mindfulness. And the cool thing is; they’re that rare breed of tool that gets sharper with use.
Want that kind of mental magic? You already have it. Just decide to start using it. Observe your thoughts as they happen. Observe your environment as you’re in it. That’s awareness. And every use makes it more effective the next time.
Mindfulness interrupts the spiral of thoughts and feelings that ignite anxiety
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a powerful psychological tool aimed at managing the connection between thoughts and feelings and actions. We often think feelings cause thoughts—but the reverse is true. Thoughts are coded by experience and environment—and they spark the feelings our body uses to fuel reactions.
Here’s an analogy that works well for understanding the basis of CBT therapy. Picture this:
Two friends out for a walk turn a corner and come face to face with an unleashed dog with no owner in sight.
Person A grew up with dogs; knows how to cautiously approach and interpret canine body language.
Person B had no pets growing up and was viciously bitten on the face by a terrier at a kindergarten birthday party long ago.
Backstory is important because it defines what happens next. Our lives are made of stories we tell ourselves based on our experiences, good and bad. These stories become mental habits and can deepen to dangerous ruts threatening to derail us at any time—seemingly without warning.
Thought is so quick and so tied to feeling that the two can become indistinguishable, especially in a surprise scenario. But here’s where the paths diverge:
Thought (A): So cute! Look at that smile. Reminds me of my first childhood dog. Its owner is probably looking for it. I wonder if it has a tag with a phone number.
Thought (B): So huge! Look at those teeth. Reminds me of that vicious attack dog. Where’s its owner? How can people be so irresponsible? I wonder if it has rabies.
Thought is edited by experience—but it’s written by sensory information. That’s where CBT techniques like the 5 by 5 Sensory Grounding tool come in handy for rewriting the script as it unfolds. Without catching and revising our ruminative thoughts, we can’t change the subsequent feelings:
Feeling (A): Attraction, nostalgia, curiosity, compassion
Feeling (B): Repulsion, fear, anger, enmity
Feelings are distilled from thoughts, and they fuel our system’s reaction to a given situation. Some reactions are autonomous to ensure they work when needed—but some are behavioral and stem from choices. Either way, behavior becomes a feedback loop—for good or ill.
Behavior (A): Crouches and holds out a hand to let the dog come sniff. Checks the collar and phones the worried owner, petting the frightened dog until the owner arrives.
Behavior (B): Tenses up for fight or flight. Fists clench, blood pressure jumps. Heart races, spurring a feedback loop pumping adrenaline and cortisol to fuel the afterburners. Runs away—and the dog instinctively gives chase...
Person A and Person B went through the exact same situation—the only thing different was their thoughts giving rise to feelings leading to behavior.
Neither’s behavior was wrong. It was programmed by experience. In fact, both might think the other’s behavior crazy. But behavior does have consequences. For those who want positive consequences, behavior management starts with thought management which starts with awareness.
Have you experienced something similar with a friend or loved one during COVID? Share your story in the comments.
Cognitive restructuring mindfulness exercises
This one is simple. The more you practice the better you’ll get: Once you become aware of a negative thought, add but positive.
E.g. 1: I have to spend 5 hours on Zoom meetings today BUT that means I get to see human faces and talk to people.
E.g. 2: I’m terrified of going to the grocery store BUT I know the recommended precautions and I’m well prepared to keep myself safe.
E.g. 3: Quarantine sucks and I feel like a prisoner BUT I’m enjoying spending time at home with my partner/kids/pet/projects.
Every negative followed by a positive. Even if another negative thought counters—counter back. Keep it going as long as you can. It’s a game you play with yourself. Negative to positive, call and response. The fun part is...you always win.