As a lawyer whose job involves lots of talking and being the center of attention, Jeena Cho’s fear of socializing was debilitating.
“I would constantly mentally critique my own performance,” said Cho, who is also a mindfulness instructor and coauthor of “The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation.”
“If I had to go into a hearing and I can feel my face was getting red, my palms are sweaty … I would think, ‘Oh, my gosh, everyone in the courtroom is going to know that you’re super anxious. And you’re going to freeze and you’re going to forget what you’re going to say,’” Cho said. “Of course, all of those thoughts would then retrigger all the physiological reactions, then my heart would race even faster.”
After being diagnosed with social anxiety in 2011, Cho learned that researchers had been studying the potential for mindfulness practices, such as meditation, to help reduce fear responses like hers. According to studies from 2015 and 2020, some students have successfully used mindfulness-based stress reduction programs to lessen their fears of academic evaluation, which interfered with their abilities to study. People who struggled with social phobias or fears related to post-traumatic stress also benefited from mindfulness training, according to research published in 2010 and 2017, respectively.
Feeling her fears had kept her world very small, Cho signed up for an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction program at Stanford University to try to change her life.
A new outlook on fear
With the help of two hours’ worth of mindfulness classes weekly, daily 45-minute meditations and homework that challenged rigid beliefs, Cho learned how to distance herself from fearful thoughts and to be kinder to herself.
“My mind says, ‘You have a hearing tomorrow, and you’re going to be terrible at the hearing and you’re going to lose, and if you lose, your clients are going to sue you for malpractice. And then you’re going to become disbarred, and you’re going to become homeless,’” Cho said. “I was able to look at that thought and be like, ‘Oh, you know what, that’s just mental conditioning. That’s just some thoughts that my mind made up somewhere along the line, but there’s no evidence for it.’”
It’s not that she doesn’t experience fear or anxiety anymore, but her response to them has changed.
“I can recognize those thoughts as just random thoughts that my mind was making up,” Cho added. “I would go, ‘Oh, yeah, my mind is doing that catastrophic thinking again. What’s the more helpful thought that I can have?’”
Adults who did four weeks of guided mindfulness meditation training using the smartphone app Headspace saw similar results. They had an easier time overcoming their fear reactions in comparison to a control group that didn’t go through mindfulness training, according to a small 2019 study.
Headspace let the participants use the app’s 10- to 20-minute daily guided meditations for free and provided adherence data to the researchers, but otherwise didn’t have any further involvement in the study, according to the study’s authors.
The findings suggested that “mindfulness training appears to improve the retention of fear extinction memories,” said the study’s first author Johannes Björkstrand, a researcher in psychology at Lund University in Sweden. In other words, fear extinction is the brain’s ability to form and save memories that tell it a once-feared situation is now safe.
How mindfulness changes minds
Cho’s experience, backed up by all these studies, was that practicing mindfulness helped her to restructure a negative mindset or to stop expecting the worst possible outcome in every situation.
Most find the practice of intentionally focusing one’s awareness on their breathing, bodily sensations and emotions helpful for regulating overthinking, fear and shame, according to the 2015 study on college students with fears of academic evaluation.
The eight-week mindfulness course the students took gave them calm “and made them feel more accepting towards themselves and their anxiety problems,” said Aslak Hjeltnes, the study’s first author, via email. “The participants started using mindfulness when they were distracted by anxious feelings in academic performance situations. Some participants described a gradual shift in their everyday life, where they experienced less fear and more curiosity in their own academic studies.”
“I have a way to bring myself back down to earth and just tell myself that ‘It’s no big deal, now I can just go and do the exercises, and then it will be fine afterwards,’” one study participant told the researchers.
For people who still feel fear in response to certain situations, mindfulness can help them stay or sit with these experiences and learn they can cope through them, said Auretta Sonia Kummar, a clinical psychology doctoral student at Murdoch University in Australia, via email. “It is the regulation of emotions, and hence, also the regulation of behaviour (i.e., how I intentionally respond to the fear stimulus as opposed to automatically react to it).”
And the effects of this type of training can be long-lasting. “Neuroscientific studies indicate that eight weeks of (mindfulness-based stress reduction) training can lead to changes in the brain, for example in reduced activity in the amygdala, one of the neural systems that processes fear,” Hjeltnes, an associate professor in clinical psychology at the University of Bergen in Norway, said.
Consistently confronting fears with mindfulness on a regular basis is important for the practice to work, Hjeltnes said.
Several years after Cho’s first experience with mindfulness training, the practice is still critical for her. “I realized that these tools and techniques are really things that I think everyone can benefit from,” Cho said. “I started teaching it to other lawyers, and then I wrote the book ‘The Anxious Lawyer.’
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“Every time I have to give a talk, I definitely still feel anxious. I still notice the little butterflies in my stomach, my heart races a little bit faster,” she added. “But I’m able to recognize those physiological reactions as my body’s way of letting me know that I’m about to do something important.”
Now that intense anxiety is in her rearview mirror, Cho said she experiences the world differently. “I will definitely stop and smell the roses when I see them, look up at the sky, look at the clouds go by,” she said. “I’m able to just enjoy the day-to-day, momentary experiences of joy.”