A Mindful Approach to Anxiety

A Mindful Approach to Anxiety

by Melissa A. Lewis-Duarte, PhD

About the author: As an anxious mom in search of calm, Melissa Lewis-Duarte, Ph.D. writes about living with anxiety and mindfulness-based behavioral change in real life. Prior to founding Working On Calm, she enjoyed working as a business consultant, college instructor, and corporate trainer. Melissa earned a Ph.D. in Psychology from Claremont Graduate University. Currently, she lives with her husband in Scottsdale, AZ, managing their chaotic life, three young boys, and a barking dog.

Anxiety has played an unpleasant role in my life for over two decades. Some days, months, and years are better than others as my anxiety waxes and wanes, but it’s always there. Throughout the years I tried different coping mechanisms with varying levels of success. It wasn’t until I committed to mindfulness-based practices that I experienced a real breakthrough with my anxiety.

Prior to the pandemic, I managed to live with anxiety. It was like a dormant volcano, occasionally bubbling to the surface and producing steam. Then, 2020 happened. I stressed about the health and safety of my family and community, isolated from family and friends, and struggled to homeschool three young boys while my husband worked at a local hospital. Like an earthquake causing the volcano to erupt, the pandemic caused an anxiety explosion.

That’s when I knew I had to make a change. It was up to me to deal with my anxiety in a whole new way. I decided to finally do all those things I knew I should be doing to foster a healthier mind-body connection. On January 1, 2021, I committed to creating a calmer life and implemented real change.

Armed with relevant knowledge and experience in both psychology and behavioral change, I wrote a “Commitment to Calm.” In it, I defined my purpose (a calmer life) and decided to focus on four mindfulness-based behaviors. I promised myself I would meditate, try yoga, practice gratitude, and find pleasure in everyday moments. For thirty days, I pledged ten minutes a day towards one of these activities. Starting small made my commitment feasible and helped me learn to prioritize self-care.

I focused on mindfulness-based techniques because I knew they could be effective in combatting anxiety. Mindful behavioral change refers to the use of mindfulness-based practices to create lasting change in thoughts and behaviors. This can help us become aware of our thoughts and emotions while getting curious about their validity and impact. Mindfulness can also help us identify ineffective thought and behavior patterns and replace them with more effective habits.

Each day I completed one of my mindfulness-based activities, I practiced being present in the moment. When I connected with my breath during meditation, challenged my focus, movement, and breath during an online yoga class, experienced contentment while taking a gratitude walk, or paused to savor an enjoyable moment, I grew calmer. These activities provided a formal mindfulness practice.

Pretty soon, all the formal practices spilled over into what I call informal moments – times throughout the day in which I paused to acknowledge the feelings of being centered, connected, present, and content. The activities became habits after I experimented with different ways of practicing mindfulness and found what consistently calmed my anxiety. I worked with a therapist when I felt stuck but played an active role in my mental health on a daily basis.

What started with small changes turned into larger transformations. It’s been nine months since I made that commitment, and I can honestly say it changed my life. It wasn’t always easy and I’m still a work-in-progress, but I’m in a drastically different place than before.

All the while, I chronicled my journey and the lessons learned along the way. I continue to blog about my life as an “anxious mom committed to calm.” I’ve relied on communities like those provided through the ADAA’s website to know I am not alone. I speak up about my struggles with anxiety to help #breakthestigma, and it’s important for me to create a community for others like me. The writing is cathartic, both allowing me to discuss mindfulness in real life and helping others make similar changes.

My experiences prepared me for this journey in multiple ways.
1. My Ph.D. in Psychology provided a foundation of knowledge in evidence-based psychology and directed my focus to the areas of behavioral change and positive psychology.
2. Teaching psychology and management to college students taught me to research relevant topics and write about them in an easily digestible format.
3. Training employees and managers and helping them set and exceed professional and organizational goals as a business consultant and trainer gave me greater understanding of how people change.
4. Living with anxiety for twenty years taught me the importance of mental health in overall physical health and the necessity of prioritizing self-care for well-being.
In hindsight, I was unknowingly preparing for this endeavor my whole adult life.

Mindfulness is a game-changer that’s available to all of us when we’re finally ready to commit to it. If an anxious mom like me can learn to do this, so can you!

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