I’m Neil Hughes. An occasional stand-up comic. And a full-time worrier.
Though that might understate things a little. Truthfully, I’ve always been very anxious.
As a child, I lay awake worrying about death, and while, in later years, I squished these thoughts into the back of my mind, at times the repressed terror exploded out and crippled me for months at a time.
But today—after spending years developing tools for handling anxiety—I no longer fear like I used to.
I wish I could reveal “one simple trick” to be rid of anxiety forever. Unfortunately, I doubt such a thing exists. But the closest thing to such a trick is the most powerful anti-anxiety tool I now rely on: mindfulness.
What makes mindfulness so powerful is its ability to help me to regain control in any situation, no matter how lost in anxious thoughts I am.
My anxiety comes from a whole host of inner processes. Sometimes it’s a nagging inner voice criticising me, reminding me of past failures, or foretelling disasters to come; sometimes it’s an unquiet feeling latching onto whatever it finds.
Inner critic: Sometimes it’s after he does stupid things, like writing embarrassing articles about anxiety on the internet.
Thanks for making my point, inner critic.
Because anxiety has so many roots, it’s easy to get tangled in the search for explanation. I trick myself into believing that if only I knew why I was anxious, I would be free of the fear.
And so I spend hours picking, poking and prodding at the painful feelings. And—unsurprisingly—dwelling on fears like this only makes them more prominent in my mind.
Put simply, attempting to explain anxiety makes me more anxious; suddenly I’m multiplying all the things I have to worry about! Is it my diet? My habits? Is it my work, my relationships, my social life, my hobbies? What if it’s some buried trauma? Or a hidden disease?!
This is where the power of mindfulness comes in. No matter how tangled I am in these thoughts, if I resist the urge to seek the why, and focus instead on the what I can reduce the anxious feelings.
I ask myself these simple questions: What is real, right now? What is true? What is actually happening in reality?
Anxiety is rarely rooted in the reality of what is happening now. It is a creature from an imaginary future.
This makes anxiety fragile, insubstantial and weak. When I mindfully focus my attention on now, I see anxiety for what it is: simply pictures in my mind of unpleasant possibilities. And I don’t need to fear pictures in my mind.
Weirdly, after I learned this truth, my anxiety became temporarily worse. It’s as if my anxiety (if I may personify it for a moment) fears me having this knowledge.
This makes sense. Anxiety fears being discovered for the weakling that it is. And so it fears mindfulness itself, and spends its time attempting to convince me that I shouldn’t return to the present:
You must worry about everything. Fear the unknown. If you don’t… who knows what may happen? If you don’t fear the future, how will you control it?
It’s understandable that anxiety would lie to me in this way. It fears that I will stop listening to it if I realise how flimsy it truly is.
This is what makes mindfulness so powerful. It lays bare the weakness of my anxiety, and reminds me that I can prepare for the future much better if I live peacefully in the present as I do so.
(Even if something bad is going to happen, mindfulness is a better tool for facing it than anxious worrying.)
Now I am learning to recognise the feeling of living unmindfully in an imagined, painful future, and to use that feeling as a trigger to return to what is real and true in the present moment.
It’s okay to fail at this occasionally. It’s difficult to always live in the present moment. But it’s worth the effort of practicing doing so.
My anxiety is scared of me getting better at this mindful living. Because when I do, it’ll be out of a job.
Author: Neil Hughes
Editor: Caroline Beaton