Learning to manage anxiety involves getting to know our internal experience; developing understanding of our feelings and emotions; accepting that our feelings and emotions are there to support us; and learning to work “with them”, not fight against them.
Psychiatrist Dr Dan Siegel named this practice “Mindsight”, which he defined as:
… A kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds.
It helps us to get ourselves off the autopilot of ingrained behaviours and habitual responses.
It lets us ‘name and tame’ the emotions we are experiencing, rather than being overwhelmed by them.’ (6)
When you think about it, our mind is our most valuable and precious resource, integrating information from our external world (our everyday experiences with relationships, culture, the weather, etc) with our internal world (thoughts, feelings and emotions). According to Siegel (5), the human mind is ” … an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.”
It is our mind (or this process of integration of energy and information) that we rely on to be happy, anxious, content, worried, confused, angry, etc.
Considering the power this intricate human system holds in determining our experience of life, what could be more important than ensuring it has the care and attention it deserves?
The Vagus Nerve
A truly amazing and important component of this flow of energy and information is the Vagus Nerve, which conducts messages from the brain to our most vital organs (heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, spleen, etc), and also in the other dicrection: our body’s sensory and “gut” responses back to the brain.
The Vagus Nerve provides the pathway through which we can begin to care for our mind, and manage our anxiety – simply by learning how to slow down and mindfully interact with the world in which we live (1,3). Without this type of help and support, our human system can run on “autopilot”, instinctively reacting to perceived threat – rather than mindfully assessing and responding to what is happening around us (5).
Anxiety: an Automatic Response
Of course, the human species has survived due to its ability to respond instinctively and quickly to danger. Our minds learned to determine when to fight for our lives; flee from danger; freeze and hope danger passes; or when to simply relax and enjoy the moment!
Due to this ability to swiftly integrate information and “gut responses”, our mind-body system has developed a safety first approach which has preserved our species. In fact, our integrated systems work so efficiently that when alerted to danger, our mind and body are working together for self-preservation in just 1/20th of a second – a little less than the time it takes for two heart beats (7).
However, due to the complexity of our systems, the busyness of our lives, and our inability to always have a considered response to situations, there are often times when these reactions are actually in response to a danger that is not real, or only imagined (3). This is when anxiety can become problematic. As part of our survival mechanism, our minds have learned how to overestimate threats; to underestimate opportunity, and the potential resources that may be available to support us. In short, we can become wired to survive rather than being wired to thrive (4)!
A Wandering Mind
In contrast to our minds having capacity to be too finely tuned to possible present danger; they can also be “not present” to everyday experience. A recent study has shown our minds wander about 47% of the time, and that people were substantially less happy when reporting mind wandering, regardless of whether they enjoyed the activity they were engaged in. This research shows that we can spend almost half of our life lost in thought, which will potentially make us unhappy (2).
The good news is however, that if the automatic anxiety response has become a problem, neuroscience has now found that we can re-wire our brain regardless of age! By using simple mindsight exercises, we can promote the growth of new, healthier neural connections that can positively affect our mind and benefit our mental health.
The Practice of Mindsight
As with any new practice, changing old habits is never easy; as you begin the practice of mindsight, remember that like physical fitness, mental fitness involves training, so it’s important to:
- Start with a small amount of exercise (if you want to run 10 kilometres, you will need to start just walking around the block!);
- Remember that anything new becomes easier and more effective as your baseline fitness increases, and you start to feel more familiar with your practice.
Here are some simple mindsight exercises, designed to help you slow down your mind and develop self-awareness:
Take a moment to change self-talk: Rather than saying “I am sad” say, “I feel sad”. This allows us to recognise and acknowledge our feeling, without “becoming” that feeling. It also allows us to notice and just accept how we are feeling. Accepting feelings (or any internal experience) allows us to develop self-awareness and to generate techniques that will help us self-support as our practice proceeds.
Take a moment to be present in the “here and now”: Bringing your attention to the present moment gives you a reality check! Take time to consider – Is my mind wandering and maybe being creative with the truth? Is what I am thinking now, real, or am I worrying needlessly about some future event? If so, is worrying about the future negatively impacting how I feel in the present? Is my worry helpful right now?
When your mind has taken on a life of its own, you can slow it down simply by:
- Taking a slow, deep breath;
- Focusing your attention on how the air feels as it goes into your lungs, the change in your body as you draw in the air (your lungs fill, and stomach rises), and the feel of the air on your lips as you very slowly and gently, blow it back out again. Notice too the change in your body state after blowing out – Do my shoulders feel more relaxed? Am I naturally starting to draw in air for another breath in? Check in on how you are feeling.
- Noticing your surrounds. What can I see, feel, smell and hear? What is happening in my world right now?
Take a moment to slow down your daily routine: Now, use your slow deep breath to help bring awareness to everyday activities, for example:
- As you stand in the shower in the morning, take a slow breath then notice the feel of the water on your skin, how the droplets fall on the shower screen, the sound of the water as it gurgles down the drain, the smell of the soap as you wash your skin.
- As you walk to the bus, breathe deeply as you notice the feel of the sun on your face, the smell of the coffee shop you pass, the way your feet feel inside your shoes, the sound of the cars as they go by.
- Before you pick up your mobile phone, and lose yourself in social media, take a slow deep breath, feel the phone in your hand, check in with yourself – Do I feel bored? Am I curious about how my friend’s day is going? What is my need in checking my phone right now? As you breathe out, just notice your own response.
The benefits of learning how to relax the mind with mindsight, will be proportionate to the time spent practicing. Then, the benefits of taking “time out” for your mental health will not only help you to manage problem anxiety, but also benefit your everyday experience of life!
Author: Wendy Taylor, B Sc (Psych); M Couns; PG Dip Psych; M Psych; MAPS.
Wendy Taylor is a Brisbane psychologist with extensive experience in working with children, adolescents, young adults and their parents, across a range of issues. Wendy’s therapeutic approach is client-centred and strengths-based, as she assists clients to identify, develop and build on individual strengths and community resources, to support ongoing capacity for personal growth and sense of fulfilment across the life span.
To make an appointment, you can book Brisbane Psychologist Wendy Taylor online, or freecall 1800 877 924 today.
- Buczynski, R., & Porges, S.W. (2012). The polyvagal theory of trauma. A webinar session. Available from nicabm.com (accessed 31st March, 2106).
- Killingsworth, M. & Gilbert, D. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330, 932. doi: 10.1126/science.1192439.
- Porges, S. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundstions of emotions, attachment, communication, self-regulation. New York:WW Norton & Co
- Sheehan, M. & Pearse, S. (2012). Wired for Life: Retrain Your Brain and Thrive. Australia:Hay House.
- Siegel, D. (2012) The Developing Mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York: Guilford Press.
- Siegel, D. (2010) Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York: Bantam.
- Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score. New York: Viking.