An irregular heartbeat, shallow breathing, increased sweating, nervous pacing, worrisome thoughts, and the unmistakable feeling of dread and apprehension — those are all signs of anxiety, one of the most toxic emotional responses to fearful and stressful situations. Well-meaning people might say “calm down” or to “stop being so sensitive” or to “just stop letting things bother you,” but it often feels impossible to do when you’re in that emotional state.
But figuring out how to manage emotions is crucial because plenty of research shows that being anxious contributes to poor health.
An excess amount of the stress hormone cortisol in our body suppresses our immune system, which slows down our ability to heal, making us more vulnerable to colds, the flu, and more serious infections. Gastrointestinal disorders — ulcers, diarrhea, constipation — are common among stressed-out people, but an achy belly isn’t all that can happen. The Nurses’ Health Study found that “women with the highest levels of phobic anxiety were 59% more likely to have a heart attack, and 31% more likely to die from one, than women with the lowest anxiety levels.” Data from the Women’s Health Initiative also found that a history of panic attacks triples the risk of having a coronary event or stroke.
Your lungs aren’t immune, either. There’s a correlation between high rates of anxiety symptoms and panic attacks and chronic respiratory disease. According to research cited by Harvard Health Publishing, anxiety has been associated with more frequent hospitalization of patients suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and “more severe distress at every level of lung function.”
If you’re like me, you might be getting anxious thinking about these many adverse health effects. So, how do we protect ourselves?
“There are two ways of healing sickness, material means and spiritual means. The first is by the use of remedies, of medicines; the second consists in praying to God and in turning to Him. Both means should be used and practiced.
Illness caused by physical accident should be treated with medical remedies; those which are due to spiritual causes disappear through spiritual means. Thus an illness caused by affliction, fear, nervous impressions, will be healed by spiritual rather than by physical treatment. Hence, both kinds of remedies should be considered.”
Abdu’l-Baha said both remedies work together. A visit to the doctor can determine if medical interventions are necessary for treating anxiety. But, like many researchers and experts, I believe practicing mindfulness is one of the many spiritual methods that we can use.
What Is Mindfulness?
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines mindfulness as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis also : such a state of awareness.”
Mindfulness meditations and exercises train our minds to stop focusing on negative thoughts that aren’t beneficial to us in the current moment and increase our capacity to become more relaxed in any given situation. Research has shown that practicing mindfulness improves working memory, heightens metacognitive awareness, lowers levels of anxiety, reduces emotional reactivity, enhances visual processing, reduces stress, and helps manage physical pain.
If we want to become more mindful, let’s unpack what causes stress because anxiety and stress go hand in hand.
Understanding the Stress Response
First, some science: When you feel stressed, adrenaline increases your heart rate and dilates your pupils. Within a second of feeling alarmed, your brain is on high alert, and stress hormones begin pumping through your bloodstream. Your emotions intensify, and your amygdala — almond-shaped masses of gray matter inside your brain — sends a fast-track signal to your fight-or-flight systems, getting you ready for anger, fear, or anxiety.
The Effects of Anxiety and Stress on the Body
Humanity would not be here today if it weren’t for that fight-or-flight response — it helped our ancient ancestors fight a wildebeest or run from a lion. However, we don’t usually need that amount of adrenaline and cortisol to deal with modern-day life. Our hormone levels typically return to normal after a perceived threat has passed.
But when stressors are always present, and you constantly feel attacked, those stress hormones remain in your bloodstream, which causes your amygdala to become more sensitized. In their book, “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom,” Dr. Rick Hanson and Dr. Richard Mendius explain how this increasingly shades our implicit memories — past experiences that we are not consciously aware of — with fear. This intensifies ongoing anxiety, regardless of the situation.
That chronic state of anxiety can cause a variety of illnesses and disrupt your bodily processes. Ongoing anxiety also impairs our hippocampus’s ability to produce new memories. This causes painful experiences to be documented in our implicit memories, which can make us feel distressed, often without knowing why.
Learning to Be Mindful
Whether we are reliving painful experiences from the past or feeling worried about potential harm in the future, anxiety prevents us from being grateful and present. This requires us to pause, breathe, and take in the beauty all around us. There is so much good in the world, and there is always something to be thankful for, but we often let fear distract us from noticing and appreciating what is right in front of us: the smell of fresh air, the sound of birds chirping, the warmth of a genuine hug, or the sound of loved ones laughing. We need to savor every positive experience that we are given and focus on every sensation they bring, understanding that life itself is a blessing.
As Abdu’l-Baha said at a talk in New York City in 1912:
“Consider how difficult for man is the attainment of pleasures and happiness in this mortal world. How easy it is for the animal. Look upon the fields and flowers, prairies, streams, forests and mountains. The grazing animals, the birds of the air, the fishes neither toil nor undergo hardships; they sow not, nor are they concerned about the reaping; they have no anxiety about business or politics—no trouble or worry whatsoever…The animal is nobler, more serene and confident because each hour is free from anxiety and worriment; but man, restless and dissatisfied, runs from morn till eve, sailing the seas, diving beneath them in submarines, flying aloft in airplanes, delving into the lowest strata of the earth to obtain his livelihood—all with the greatest difficulty, anxiety and unrest. Therefore, in this respect the animal is nobler, more serene, poised and confident. Consider the birds in the forest and jungle: how they build their nests high in the swaying treetops, build them with the utmost skill and beauty—swinging, rocking in the morning breezes, drinking the pure, sweet water, enjoying the most enchanting views as they fly here and there high overhead, singing joyously—all without labor, free from worry, care and forebodings.”
So yes, modern-day stressors are unpleasant, but we only intensify and perpetuate their harm by viscerally reacting to them.
If we practice being mindful, we learn to focus on the good in our lives and detach ourselves from the negativity we may encounter. Our inner peace and clarity will grow, as we train our minds and shape our thoughts to this new way of thinking and being.