Stephen Lacey discovers a way to tame his anxiety by learning to focus on the here and now.
There was a time, about two years ago, when I was racked with chronic anxiety. I worried incessantly about everything from my health to my marriage. I spent every waking hour churning over the past and was frightened about the future. My GP sent me to a shrink who diagnosed generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).
It was here I was introduced to the concept of mindfulness and a book by Australian doctor Craig Hassed, Know Thyself. It was life-changing. Suddenly, I saw that I'd been living my life in the past and the future but never in the now. Instead of just enjoying the moment, I devoted my time to worrying about what might happen tomorrow and lamenting what might have been yesterday.
And I'm not the only one. About one in seven Australian adults suffers from an anxiety disorder and, for 5 per cent of us, the anxiety is so crippling if affects every aspect of our lives. Studies show that anxiety disorders are increasing, particularly among women.
Once the penny dropped, I was able to work towards a total awareness of every waking moment and my anxiety levels plummeted. I still have GAD but every time I feel myself slipping back into sloppy thought patterns (such as worrying about whether knocking out that fibro wall will give me lung cancer in 20 years), I take a few deep breaths and bring myself back to the present.
I'll make myself aware of the sounds around me: the currawongs warbling, the wind moving through the trees. I'll feel my cotton shirt against my skin, or taste the salt in the air. I'll be totally and utterly in the moment. This moment.
Sounds a bit flaky? That's what I would have thought, too. I'm hardly your Birkenstock-wearing, crystals-cured-my-eczema kind of guy. But mindfulness isn't some mystical, hippie hocus-pocus. It really works. And there's science to back it up.
An associate professor at Northern Rivers University Department of Rural Health, James Bennett-Levy, says there have been a number of peer-reviewed studies in the past five years, supporting the positive benefits and effects of mindfulness.
''Mindfulness has been particularly successful in treating relapse prevention in people with depression. It has also been shown to help people with GAD,'' Bennett-Levy says. Not only that, mindful people sleep more soundly, have stronger immunity and lower blood pressure, a healthier brain and are more efficient at day-to-day functioning.
This is backed up by Hassed, who says we are all born mindful (have you ever seen a baby worry about tomorrow?) but we gradually fall into the trap of unmindfulness. We eat our food but we don't really taste it because we are thinking of the big conference tomorrow. We look at a landscape but we don't really see it because we are stewing over the promotion we should have been given last year.
''Our environment doesn't help,'' Hassed says. ''We are bombarded by attitudes and advertising that makes us believe 'I'll be happy when' and 'I would have been happy, if only'.''
To be mindful means to be aware of the moment. It seems so obvious. Yet so few of us are capable of it. Instead of living our lives as they unfold, they simply pass us by.
The cornerstone of Hassed's approach is mindfulness meditation, whereby you sit and become aware of the environment around us (sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch).
One of the most common misconceptions about meditation is that it's about making the mind ''go blank'' - an impossibility even to the most experienced meditators.
''It's not so much all this stuff that's in your head, but the attitude that we bring to it,'' Hassed says.
Mindfulness is even finding its way into the sports arena. A sports psychologist with the NSW Institute of Sport, Gerard Faure-Brac, says it's impossible for an athlete to hit their peak performance unless they are in the ''here and now''.
Faure-Brac says much of the mindfulness training he does is about helping athletes manage their stress response by being mindful of their immediate environment.
''This is effective for all sorts of sports. I work in swimming, equestrian, rowing, gymnastics and hockey,'' he says. ''It's becoming very popular in sports psychology because it works.
''So, for example, a sprinter down on the blocks is trained to be in the moment, to concentrate on their body position and their breathing, to completely focus on the here and now, without extraneous issues coming into their head, such as 'Who are my competitors?' or 'This is an important race'.''
From a Buddhist perspective, mindfulness, or sati as it is known in Pali, is crucial. Wai Cheong Kok, a senior teacher at the Vajrayana Institute, Ashfield (a Tibetan Buddhist learning centre), says traditionally speaking, mindfulness is used by Buddhists to counteract afflictive mind states, such as anger, cravings and jealousy. ''Take anger for example,'' he says. ''Most of us don't even know we are angry until after we've exploded. But when we become aware, then we have a choice: do I want to continue being angry, or should I think differently?''