Yesterday, I “attended” a Center for Mindful Eating teleseminar on “Using Mindfulness to Calm Anxiety,” presented by Cheryl Wasserman, MA, LPC. Stress and anxiety doesn’t feel good. It causes us mental and emotional pain, and when chronic, it can have adverse effects on our health, mostly by way of excess release of the stress hormone cortisol into our bloodstream. This isn’t good for health or a healthy weight.
If you’ve ever been bullied, you know that it makes you anxious and stressed. Well, many of us have “inner bullies,” and your inner bully knows exactly what to say to bring you to your knees. When you practice mindfulness, you can learn to look directly at the pain and anxiety your inner bully causes instead of simply continuing to look at the world from the vantage point of your pain.
Being able to look at your own pain is an important step in learning self-compassion. Wasserman said self-compassion is a key component of mindfulness (a tenant of which is non-judgment) and necessary for of building a healthy relationship with yourself and food.
When most people experience stress or anxiety, their impulse is to bolt. They may turn to food as an escape (although some people find that they can’t eat when stressed or anxious). Practicing mindfulness helps you learn to turn toward your anxiety, looking at it with a sense of curiosity and self-compassion instead of trying to run away from it.
Wasserman cited Kristen Neff’s suffering equation:
Suffering = Pain x Resistance
Neff teaches that self-compassion helps us reduce the pain of negative thoughts by lessening their hold on us, without actually pushing the negative thoughts away. This is important, because if you resist the pain of negative thoughts by trying to push the thoughts away, your efforts will be in vain, and your suffering will only increase.
Most anxiety is caused by thoughts in our own head—we use those thoughts to scare ourselves. Mindfulness helps you view your stress, fear and anxiety as passing events in the mind, instead of viewing at them as an integral part of you. This can help you to not take those thoughts so seriously, and to recognize them for the self-inflicted scare tactics they are.
Wasserman led us through an exercise that gives an approximation of how self-compassion feels in the body vs. how lack of self-compassion feels in the body:
- Put your hands out in front of you, palms facing you. Clench your fists tight, and continue clenching them for a minute or so. What feelings does that evoke in you?
- Next, unclench your fists and open your hands, still palms up, and hold them in front of you. What changes do you notice in how you feel?
- Finally, place one hand over the other and bring them up to touch the center of your chest. Feel the warmth. What does this evoke for you?
- Hint: The clenched fists represent self-criticism; the hands nestled against your chest represent self-compassion.
Why is it so hard to remove ourselves from the grip of anxiety and negative thoughts? Wasserman said that the brain has a bias for negativity, because it used to be an crucial survival technique. Once upon a time, if you wandered down a particular path and you saw a sabertooth tiger coming toward you, it was important that you would remember this event with anxiety and negativity, so that the next time you started going down that path, you would say to yourself, “What, are you stupid? Do you want to get eaten by a sabertooth tiger?”