Anxiety can justifiably be described as the mental health issue of our generation. The last decade in Ireland has seen a significant rise in the numbers of people presenting at GPs, and seeking counselling for anxiety or anxiety related issues. A certain amount of anxiety is natural, for example – before an exam, or prior to a public speaking engagement. This “healthy” anxiety is simply a bodily reaction or forewarning that we are about to do something stressful or facing a potential threat. However, when we begin to experience anxious feelings on a regular basis and can find no apparent reason for this, then anxiety may have become a problem.
A common and very human response is avoidance. We begin to avoid people or situations which can trigger our anxiety. However this strategy can quickly become self defeating as we find the number of situations we avoid increases. This of course is restrictive and can impact on our quality of life. Fortunately there is a way in which we can face our anxiety if we can meet it with compassion, and not judgment.
It may seem counter intuitive to sit with and allow our feelings be, when we may have for so long taken these very feelings as a sign of weakness or even failure. Allowing our feelings to be what they are without judgment invites us to adopt a new attitude towards ourselves. This attitude of compassion for ourselves is sometimes called being mindful or being a good friend to yourself. In what way does this approach help alleviate or even lessen the frequency of anxiety attacks.? The answer is that, in most cases it is our response to anxiety which prolongs and intensifies the experience. Very often our immediate reaction to anxiety is to try to either suppress,resist, camouflage or flee the feelings. This is understandable given that anxiety is perceived as mental health issue, and for many it may be a difficult feeling to admit to.
The paradox is that the more we resist and fight the feelings of anxiety the stronger they will become. When we can begin to accept our feelings, including anxiety, in a sense we are accepting ourselves since our feelings are part of who we are moment to moment. It is also important to say that acceptance here does not imply resignation or a feeling that we have been defeated by anxiety, far from it. And also that becoming more accepting of unpleasant feelings will not suddenly make those feelings pleasant. Indeed it will take practice, time and patience to become more accepting of ourselves and our feelings.
In fact what we are doing, whether we realise it or not, is beginning to forge a new and different relationship with ourselves. Much has been spoken and written about our relationships with others, be they romantic, friendships or familial, but until recently , by comparison, much less has been said about how we see and relate to ourselves. *Padraig O’Morain, a long standing practitioner and writer on mindfulness says that “the quality of our relationship to ourselves can either enrich or impoverish our lives, and our relationships with others”
Of course a mindful approach is only one of many ways in which we can work on anxiety needless to say watching our diet, limiting caffeine, nicotine and alcohol for example. Taking regular exercise and having a friend or someone we can confide in are also important for our sense of well being. But a mindful approach , I believe is an essential ingredient for better mental health and wellness.
*There are many excellent books and online resources on mindfulness. Padraig O’Morain’s kindfulness is good book to start with.
Article by Laurence Murphy, practicing at Plunkett Chambers, 21-23 Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork
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