Some people have said to me “Jim. Why would I want to be more aware of my anxiety? It’s being aware of it that makes my anxiety worse.”
One such person, let’s call him Keith, was trying to explain to me that he didn’t see how focusing on anxiety could help. When he’d done this in the past it didn’t help one iota!
Two Types of Awareness
Well, the key thing to understand here is that there are two types of awareness; one that does make it feel worse and another that alleviates your anxiety.
One type is what we call bottom-up awareness. This is the type of awareness that often makes things worse. It’s when you notice your racing thoughts or the rapid heart rate and getting really hot. It’s when noticing this stuff starts to make you panic.
When you are feeling panic, it’s as if you are struggling and fighting with your thoughts. You try to distract yourself and you get busy. But struggling doesn’t work to get rid of the anxiety. Instead, you’re just stuck feeling anxious and hoping it will soon pass.
The second type of awareness that I want to tell you about is one that is the other way up. That’s right, you’ve guessed it….it’s called top-down awareness. And this type of awareness is very different.
Top-down awareness is a bit like the bird flying up high in the sky. Imagine you are an eagle gliding up high and looking down. You can see everything down below. You ride the breeze and the changing winds. You can take notice of what is happening down below. You are observing it from a distance. And instead of struggling with it, you learn to take a step back and observe it without trying to control what is happening. This is what top-down awareness is like.
Accomplishing Mindful Awareness
But being aware in this way is tricky. You can’t just think yourself into it. You have to use mindful awareness to get you there. And the way you do that it is by developing a mindfulness practice.
Mindful awareness can be accomplished by doing long meditations (15 to 45 minutes) and by doing shorter focused-attention exercises (3-10 minutes). When you do this it fires up a different part of your brain. It starts up the part of your brain that brings on soothing and calm. When you are stuck in bottom-up awareness, your brain is doing something else because it is busily trying to think of ways to control the anxiety.
How to get started
A simple way to get started on practicing using mindful awareness is to sit down for a few minutes and just focus on the sounds around you. Let your attention focus on the different sounds as they come and go. Imagine you are sitting with headphones on listening to music and your task is to spot each of the instruments that are playing. As you hear each passing car, the ticking of the clock, the birds singing or the bang of a door closing, allow yourself to notice it and then move on. The skill is allowing yourself to notice new sounds as they pop up rather than thinking about the sounds you’ve just heard.
If you would like to learn more about mindfulness, please leave a comment below or share with your friends.