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Finding the Middle Way When Struggling with Anxiety

The decisions teenagers make when they are struggling with anxiety may not be the same decisions they would make when they are feeling more regulated, but it is useful to acknowledge that those decisions are a direct response to the emotions they were feeling at the time. So often when teaching teenagers how to respond differently to stressful triggers, they internalize the idea of opposite action. That is not necessarily always helpful either. In one of our recent “Mindful Moments” episodes, we discuss how to find the middle way when overwhelmed with conflicting information and thoughts and ways to honor one’s emotional experience while responding from a calm place.

How Does Anxiety Overwhelm Our Ability to Make Decisions?

No matter what the situation may be, our thoughts tend to get more and more polarized the more we focus on intense emotions, such as anger, fear, and shame. We quickly spiral into black and white thinking and catastrophize the worst-case scenario. If I can’t do something perfectly, I shouldn’t try at all. If one person is frustrated with me, then nobody I know must genuinely like me. If I make a mistake today or slip back into old patterns, my progress means nothing and I have to start over at ground zero. This panicked way of thinking can easily overwhelm our sense of grounding and make it difficult to make informed decisions.

When dealing with two competing viewpoints, particularly when these are internal, it can be hard to trust one’s own instinct or the way they view the world. In addition to questioning one’s belief system putting a person on edge, experiencing anxiety disrupts prefrontal cortex-mediated executive functions in the brain, or the area responsible for decision making. When the brain is focused on the physiological experience of anxiety in the emotional center of the brain, it has a diminished capacity to communicate with other areas of the brain. This explains why it is common to experience feeling shut down and dejected after a wave of anxious thoughts.

While it’s not talked about often, there is a third option when presented with black-and-white thoughts. One of the main teachings of mindfulness is learning how to find the middle way.

What is the Middle Way?

According to the philosophy of Buddhism, both suffering and pleasure are unavoidable in life. As a society, we spent a lot of time trying to avoid suffering and overindulging in pleasure, particularly when trying to escape from feelings of suffering. Walking the middle way involves acknowledging that both extremes exist, are facts of life, and may often seem co-occurring. The path of the middle way describes how to rest between opposites as they present themselves and sit with uncomfortable, conflicting thoughts and feelings. 

It is important to keep in mind that there is a way to be present on a micro-level when surrounded by so many macro-level structures and concepts that feel impossible to overcome. Anxious minds tend to zoom out and let the smaller details give way to feeling crushed by the bigger picture or hyper-fixate on the details they can’t control. Anger and unrest may move us to action, but we underestimate the effectiveness of approaching solution-oriented discussions with a calm mind, calm heart, and focused energy. Mindfulness can help people move from reacting with anger to responding with compassion and understanding.

The reason it’s called a mindfulness practice is that it’s never done. You get better at practicing mindfulness, but it remains a process to become mindful and following the Middle Way. We encourage teenagers to develop a meditation practice when things are going well or an environment is controlled so that when things begin to feel out of one’s control outside of a treatment setting, teens have some ground to sit on. 

How Does the Middle Way Apply to Therapy For Teens Struggling With Anxiety?

In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, the middle way loosely translates to using one’s “Wise Mind,” which is a blend between one’s emotional mind and one’s rational mind. When in emotional mind, decisions are ruled by moods, feelings, and urges to say or do things. When in rational mind, decisions are ruled by facts, reason, and logic. 

The phrase, Wise Mind, is used to denote that neither approach is right or wrong, but that the most effective decisions come from taking in information from both sides. This idea of the Buddhist “Middle Way” or the DBT “Wise Mind” is not about remaining neutral, but rather it is about developing the skill to see a situation from multiple perspectives and to understand where other people may be coming from. The goal of mindfulness in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is to train oneself to develop skills associated with the  “Wise Mind” so that one is better able to stay regulated when overwhelmed by anxiety.

Characteristics of Wise Mind thinking include:

  • Seeing the value of both reason and emotion
  • Recognizing and respects feelings of self and others, but responds to them in a rational way
  • Acknowledging inner wisdom
  • Intuitive thinking
  • Living Mindfully
  • Recognizing the availability of choices
  • Confidently approaching decisions

For more information about how Red Mountain Colorado can help your teen struggling with anxiety, call (877) 302-5022. We can help your family today!