The Science of Mindfulness: Why Does Observing Our Emotions Reduce Anxiety?

"Mindfulness" is one of those New Agey-sounding terms that make my friend Marcus roll his eyes and twirl his finger by his head. He's a self-described pragmatist who refers to anything that smacks of Eastern philosophy or pseudo-spirituality as "that woo-woo crap". But did you know the positive effects of mindfulness on anxiety have been scientifically shown? Join me as I explain the science of mindfulness and why it reduces anxiety. Marcus, I hope you're reading this.

Mindfulness: Acceptance & Observation of the Present

Despite its "woo-woo" sounding name, mindfulness is simply focusing your attention on what's happening in the moment. It's being aware of the now.

Mindfulness is learning to become an observer of yourself and the events unfolding around you. It's learning to simply notice, without judging, analyzing, or reacting.

Anxiety can be like standing directly beneath a waterfall. You get completely soaked and overwhelmed. Mindfulness helps you take one step back from it. You're still engaged without being completely drenched. A part of you is simply watching the anxiety unfold like you'd watch the events on a movie screen.

Mindfulness: The Science of the Observer

Neuroscience suggests being an observer of your emotions helps regulate their intensity. A region of your brain called the amygdala is activated during times of perceived threat. It serves as an alarm, activating biological responses to protect you from danger. This happens whether the "danger" is real or not, including anxiety.

Observing your emotions means consciously noticing and using words to describe them. For instance, when you're feeling angry, you notice the feeling and say to yourself, "I'm feeling angry". When you're anxious, you say, "I'm nervous/afraid/scared/etc", or "I'm feeling a lot of stress right now".

In 2007, UCLA associate professor of psychology Matthew D. Lieberman conducted a study where subjects were shown pictures of angry or fearful faces. Subjects who observed their reactions to the pictures (described their emotions with words) had a less intense amygdala response.

"When you attach the word 'angry', you see a decreased response in the amygdala," said Lieberman.

While the amygdala was less active when a subject labeled how they felt, the study showed another region of the brain was more active: the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences.

"What we're suggesting is when you start thinking in words about your emotions - labeling emotions - that might be part of what the right ventrolateral region is responsible for," Lieberman said.

Mindfulness: Cultivating the Emotional Observer

So how do you become an observer of your own emotions?

First, realize you are more than your feelings. Feeling is part of being human, but it's not all you are. Your emotions belong to you, not the other way around. The "you" that your feelings belong to is your observer self.

Get into the habit of checking in with yourself. You can't observe your emotions (attach words to them) if you're never conscious of how you feel. Check in by pausing for a moment. Stop whatever you're doing, take a breath and ask yourself:

What am I feeling right now?If I had to describe how I feel with a word, what would it be?Do I feel this emotion somewhere in my body? If so, where do I feel it?How intense is this feeling on a scale of 1 to 10?

We tend to live inside our emotions and aren't used to seeing them objectively. We have a tendency to believe we ARE our emotions, that they're the central core of our being.

Use the "checking in" exercise above to begin cultivating your emotional observer. Learning to observe yourself is the core of mindfulness. It widens your perspective and lets you see that you're more than just your emotional experience.

Mindfulness also helps us see that feelings are not facts. We often react to our feelings as though they are facts about outer reality, when they're more often true only within our inner experience.

Mindfulness isn't just some weird New Age practice for fringe dwellers. It's a practical, down-to-earth technique for quieting the irrational fears that often accompany anxiety disorder. Mindfulness also has a real foundation in the neuroscience of how our brains work to balance our emotional responses.

Greg Weber writes and blogs about phobia and anxiety disorders and is especially interested in helping people with driving anxiety. Sign up for the Driving Peace newsletter for more tips and advice about overcoming driving phobia.

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