Working Mindfully with Anxiety

In BHT Training’s latest blog, anxiety sufferer and BHT trainer, Paul Johanson explains how mindfulness can be a powerful tool to combat mental illness.

Anxiety is the most commonly reported mental health difficulty: statistics show that anxiety-related problems occur at roughly three times the rate of depression-related problems. ‘Anxiety’ is the most commonly searched term on counselling websites such as Counselling Directory. So, if you suffer from an anxiety-related condition you know you are definitely not alone!

Evolutionary Psychology tells us that anxiety and fear are a key part of our survival gear. Professor Paul Gilbert – author of ‘The Compassionate Mind’ – talks about how our ‘threat’ system in our brain – of which anxiety and fear are a key part – has been very useful in the survival of our species. The problem is that whilst a highly sensitive ‘threat’ system was essential when we were struggling to survive on the plains of Africa 100,000 years ago, it’s not so essential in today’s much safer societal conditions. In complex, advanced societies, constantly scanning the horizon for threat can be quite disabling unless we are able to regulate our threat system. Anxiety problems occur when we are unable to do this sufficiently well.

Modern neuroscience shows us that anxiety, OCD and panic are related, but quite different in terms of where they arise in the brain. But even though they are different, the way to psychologically regulate and soothe these powerful neural circuits tends to be the same: through developing mindfulness, human connection and kindness towards oneself. Although there are medications which can be immensely helpful in temporarily relieving or managing, if possible it’s always best to try to learn how to live with it.

Anxiety: A lived experience

I have suffered from anxiety for most of my life. When I was little I had a very active imagination and was terrified of the dark; during my teenage years, I developed hypochondria (or health anxiety); and in my late 20s I succumbed to terrifying panic attacks. Most of my efforts in dealing with this were to try to make the problem go away – to cure or ‘fix’ it. However, working with anxiety and fear is one of the biggest catch 22s in mental health: anxiety is about aversion and avoidance, so the more you try to make it go away, the worse it gets!

When my daughter started becoming anxious about 10 years ago I was so desperate to help and prevent her from suffering in the way I had during my childhood and so I tried to ‘fix’ it with the different techniques I had learned. Although this did have some limited success, my greatest discovery was that when I was really present with her fear – acknowledging how difficult it was for her and how frightened she was – this seemed to be much more successful than giving her techniques to make it go away. When I stopped being frightened of her fear and just stayed alongside her, comforting her with kindness and gentleness, it really seemed to help.

I’ve had a lot of different therapies and have practiced mindfulness meditation for nearly 30 years and what I’ve learned is that if you can gently and kindly approach fear and try to understand it – and even make friends with it – then you are well on your way to learning to live with it.

Find out more: Related courses

Paul will be running Mindful Approaches to Supporting People with Anxiety, Panic and OCD on 22nd June. This course will build understanding of anxiety, giving the latest research and knowledge as well as showing methods for safely getting closer to fear, understanding it and learning to help people – ourselves as well as others – live with it more successfully.

Paul will also be running Person-Centred Relational Skills on 18th July 2017.