For the majority of my life, until recently, I struggled with pretty severe anxiety. I think this would surprise a lot of people who know me, because I’ve also tended to be a somewhat outgoing and social person. Somewhat. Truth of the matter is that I also used to be terribly uncomfortable in those social settings. I could become anxious just walking into a room full of my own friends. If it was a room full of people I didn’t know, forget about it. The first day of my first semester back in college, after some 8 or 9 years away, I was about 15 minutes late to my morning class and I ended up just sitting outside the door until the class was over. The fear that everyone would stop and look at me, or that the teacher would stop talking to address me and my tardiness, overpowered the fear that I might actually get dropped from this class for not being in attendance. Instead, I just sat outside the door, paralyzed with fear, making up worst-case scenarios and ruminating on all things negative.
This was 8 years ago, and a lot has changed.
It blows my mind that I am rarely ever controlled by anxiety today. I still get nervous. I still, on occasion, worry about the future and have irrational fears of judgment from others. But, I am no longer controlled by it. I am no longer overpowered and immobilized by my thoughts, and I certainly don’t let anxiety stop me from engaging in, and enjoying all aspects of my life.
So how did this happen?
Well, I’ve been in treatment (for alcohol - that I primarily used to treat my anxiety), I’ve gone to therapy, I’ve read numerous books on the inner workings of the mind, I’ve exercised, I’ve distracted myself with mindless tasks, yada yada, blah, blah… you name it, I tried it. But, the one thing that I know helped with anxiety the most was developing a mindfulness meditation practice. Don’t get me wrong, all of those other things helped immensely, and I would highly suggest that if you are struggling with anxiety you engage in some, if not all of those activities. But, meditation is seriously the easiest and most effective at combating the thoughts that ultimately fuel anxiety.
Okay, I know! Before I lose you at meditation, let me break it down and demystify it.
Right out the gate, let’s just address the connection to religion and spirituality. Frankly, this was something that stopped me from even exploring meditation for a long time. Yes, various religions throughout the world engage in some form of meditation. You’re probably already envisioning Buddhist monks sitting in silence atop a mountain somewhere for hours on end. And, yes, people often associate meditation with the goal of reaching nirvana, and becoming some enlightened being. Well, that is not what we are doing here. Attempt to remove all judgments and preconceived notions, and think of this mindfulness practice as exercise for your mind. It’s a gym membership for your brain, backed by neuroscience.
So then, what the hell are we doing if we aren’t trying to reach nirvana? To put it as simple as possible, we are trying to strengthen the ability to notice when we have drifted off into thought and then come back to the present moment. You are simply becoming more aware of that little running dialogue that is constantly playing in your head, and developing the skill to disengage with it and shift focus to the here and now. Which brings me to another meditation misconception. Mindfulness meditation is NOT about trying to stop all thoughts.
When I talk to people about meditation, the most common thing I hear is, “I can’t do it. It’s too hard for me to stop thinking.” To which my response is usually, “Well, it’s a good thing that’s not what were trying to do.” Mindfulness is not about ceasing all thoughts. You’ve been given a wonderful brain that has the ability to think wonderful thoughts and create wonderful things (felt like Mary Poppins there for a second). The problem is, this same wonderfully creative brain is also highly efficient at conjuring up doomsday scenarios at the drop of a hat. More often than not, high levels of anxiety are associated with focusing on the fearful, negative stories instead of the alternatives. The beautiful thing is that we can actually develop the ability to choose what to focus our attention on. This is a skill that can be easily learned.
Sounds pretty far out, right?! You can actually let go of the thoughts that are bringing about anxiety. This isn’t to say that you just let go of all thoughts that cause some bit of stress in your life. Worry, to an extent, is actually good. It helps you get stuff done. What I’m talking about is the incessant focusing on things that are largely out of your control. It’s the predicting 10,000 outcomes that causes anxiety in the present. A good friend of mine says, “It’s not your circumstance that’s causing anxiety, it’s your thoughts about your circumstance that are causing anxiety” (I’m not going to spend a lot of time on that concept right now, but I’ll go in depth in a later blog).
Again, what we are doing in developing a mindfulness practice is strengthening our ability to notice that we have drifted off in to the fearful future, and then come back to the peaceful present. Notice and return. Not, push away and avoid at all cost.
Picture yourself lounging in a pool, when a beach ball suddenly floats into your awareness. You could simply take note that a beach ball has come into view, and then allow it to peacefully float on by. Or, you could grab on to the ball and repeatedly try to shove it underwater, only to find that the harder you push down the harder it pushes back up. Make sense? This ball represents the negative thoughts. You can notice them and allow them to drift on by, or you can grab on and wrestle with them until you’ve completely exhausted yourself.
Like I said, this is a skill that can be easily learned by anyone. But, just like everything else in life, it’s not something that happens magically overnight. Which brings me to my last point about mindfulness: It is a discipline that has to be practiced!
I can’t tell you how many people I speak with that are overwhelmed by their constant fearful and worrisome thoughts. And, I can’t tell you how many people, when I suggest meditation as an extremely helpful tool, try it once and never attempt it again. Folks, I’m sorry to break it to you, but change is not going to happen overnight. Pretty much everything in life takes consistency. To use the gym analogy again, you can’t wake up one day, decide you want to get super fit, go to the gym once, and expect to see any sort of results. You have to pretty much change your lifestyle. You adapt new habits, eat differently, work out 3 to 4 days a week… for months… and then you begin to see results. This is how a mindfulness practice works. It takes a serious dedicated effort. However, unlike the gym, it takes about 5 to 10 minutes a day (to start out) and you just get to sit peacefully instead of killing yourself on the Stairmaster. You will feel the results if you stick with it, but you have to have faith and stick with it.
Is this an investment in yourself that you are willing to make?
Here is my very simplified method:
Find a quiet space somewhere (eventually it won’t matter if it’s quiet or not)
Sit upright with your feet on the floor (no napping or doing this in bed right before you fall asleep)
Set the timer on your phone for 5 minutes (you can increase when you get the hang of it)
Begin with a “body scan” – simply start at your right foot and without actually moving just scan through your various appendages, noticing any tension.
As you breathe out, try and release the areas that feel tense.
Do this around your whole body until you get to your left foot.
Just “NOTICE” any thoughts that arise, and return to the scan.
Fall into a comfortable rhythm of breathing.
In through the nose, out through the mouth.
Focus all of your attention on the breathing.
Concentrate on the air passing though your nostrils, filling up your lungs, and flowing back out past your lips.
Pay attention to every little detail of this.
When you notice you have drifted away into thought, simply come back to focusing all attention on your breath.
Again, the goal is not to stop thinking, it’s to “NOTICE” when you have drifted away into thought, and to simply come back to the breath.
Another technique I use is counting my in-breath and out-breath.
So, a breath in and a breath out counts as “1.”
In, out… “2.” And so on.
I play a game where I try to get to 10 without breaking off into thinking about something else.
If I notice I have drifted into thought I start back at 1.
Honestly, I never really get to 10 without thinking, but it just gives me something to focus my attention on.
That’s it! It’s really that easy to start. I challenge anyone who reads this to set a goal of attempting at minimum of 5 minutes a day for the next 30 days. You will be blown away at the end of those 30 days if you stick with it. Plus, you’ll have a little added bonus of feeling good that you accomplished what you set out to do.
As always, if any of this speaks to you I’d love to hear what you have to say. Feel free to comment below! But, please keep in mind that this blog is for informational and entertainment purposes, and is not intended to treat, diagnose or be interpreted as a substitute for therapeutic services.