UMass Boston Professor’s Latest Book Finds a Mindful Way through Anxiety
April 15, 2011
For more than ten years, UMass Boston Professor of Psychology Lizabeth Roemer has been specializing in sweaty palms and elevated heart rates.
Working with collaborator Susan Orsillo of Suffolk University, Roemer researches physical, mental, and emotional responses to anxiety, with the intent of finding ways to help people understand and live with this distinctly human reaction.
The best treatment for anxiety disorders, says Roemer, is mindfulness, a practice rooted in the Buddhist tradition. According to Roemer, mindfulness means “learning about our anxious responses, accepting that they're natural, and then learning to respond better. It's learning to turn toward our awareness instead of away.”
She and Orsillo have published several works, mostly targeted toward therapists and other psychologists, on using mindfulness as a treatment strategy for patients suffering from debilitating anxiety. But in her latest book with Orsillo, The Mindful Way through Anxiety: Break Free from Chronic Worry and Reclaim Your Life, published this year, Roemer offers a wider audience access to mindfulness techniques.
“People [who are suffering from anxiety] can come to constrain their lives and avoid new challenges – or they try new things, but worry the whole time. With mindfulness, they can make choices that are more consistent with how they want to live their lives,” Roemer explains.
The book is written in clear, accessible language, and is intended for “anyone who experiences anxiety,” Roemer says, “from a significant amount to a little bit.” Using illustrative stories and providing reader-directed exercises for identifying and calming anxiety responses, Roemer and Orsillo thoroughly lay out their strategies for managing anxiety through attention, awareness, and compassion.
“It's helpful in conjunction with therapy,” Roemer says, “although in contrast to therapy, which is just you and a therapist, mindfulness is sustained by community.”
Roemer, who leads a research team of clinical psychology graduate students at UMass Boston, began studying anxiety because, she says, “All humans experience anxiety. Understanding how to treat anxiety helps a lot of different people in a lot of contexts.”
Roemer's interest in mindfulness-based treatments for anxiety developed in part from her own experiences with yoga, a discipline that requires a focus on the present and awareness of the body. Over time, she noticed that her yoga practice was helping her respond better to situations that caused her anxiety.
She also was interested in research that indicated that attempts to suppress or deny anxiety only created more anxiety in patients. “From a research perspective, this is consistent with other people's work – the finding that emotional avoidance and thought suppression do not work to control anxiety,” Roemer says. Practicing mindfulness is an escape from this cycle.
“Anxiety narrows attention,” she says. “Practicing mindfulness opens it, broadening your focus. Instead of fixating on anxiety – for instance, thinking, 'Oh my God, my palms are sweaty,' you can think, 'My palms are sweaty... and the sun is out.' [This book is about] cultivating that skill.”
The Mindful Way through Anxiety can help teach people to live full lives regardless of their anxiety, Roemer says.
“I benefitted just from writing it,” she says.