Here we are at the end of our meditations for a calmer life - learning to deal with anxiety. I hope you have found them helpful. Today is number 10. So what have we learned?
We started with breath, body and sense awareness. These simple techniques draw us into the moment. The present may be difficult, but often it is not, and grounding ourselves in it gives us a bit more distance from repetitive anxious thoughts. This creates more space in our head. It is a bit like flipping the breaker switch when you’ve used up too much mental power.
We learned how to set an intention (goal) for our practice by visualizing what our life and relationships could look like if we feel more calm. As I mentioned in my blog Jan 12, 2019 - “Your Best Year Ever” being able to visualize our future is useful. Several studies show that our brain doesn’t know the difference between a real memory and an imagined one. When we imagine our future vividly with emotion, our brain chemistry changes as though that imagined experience were real, and our mind records it as memory. As we rehearse in our mind what a calm life would look like our brain grows, laying down new neural pathways to perform skills as though we have already practiced them. Setting a goal can be a powerful motivator to master a new skill. We can often be more motivated to achieve something if we know it will benefit those we love.
We have learned a skill called “noting.” We take note of thoughts, feelings and sensations as they float through our head. We recognize toxic thought patterns. John Kabat Zinn, a doctor who established a Stress Reduction Clinic and research department at the University of Massachusetts Medical School says that awareness of anxious thoughts has an immediate effect. He describes it as like touching anxiety soap bubbles - the moment we do they burst and disappear. Research shows they definitely become less intense and frequent. This has been my personal experience. Brene Brown, Professor of Social Work and researcher of courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy says that there are often triggers that start a shame (alias anxiety) spiral. We can identify what button was pushed to elicit the emotional response we are feeling. We can get curious about it - is the story that grew out of that trigger really accurate? Is there something we can work on, a problem we can solve, or can we just relax and let it pass. When we observe what our mind is doing, our mind is not controlling us.
We have learned 3 layers of noting. The first was past, present or future. When I first started meditating most of my thought life was set in the past or the future. Recognizing it seemed enough to break the tendency. I would fixate on past wrongs or worry about future possibilities which often never eventuated. My thought life is a lot happier and healthier these days. Every few months I do a thought stock-take - yogis call it “stream of consciousness” (because we just love hippy names) - my thought life these days is mostly preoccupied with the here and now. If I look back it is more often to savor an enjoyable memory or to reflect on something with a constructive view to improve myself or my life or to see something from a different perspective. When I look forward it is more often to visualize some outcome I’m working towards; to dream about what could be; or to make practical plans. More of my thought life is about the present. Not that I don’t have any problems with anxiety, I just feel I have tools in my emotional tool box that help me deal with it.
We also observed whether our thoughts, feeling and sensations were pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. It is biologically easy for our brains to constantly ruminate over negative stuff. I have written about this in a previous blog: How Gratitude can Change Your Life where I shared research about our brain’s negativity bias. We all tend to constantly assess others, situations and environments for threat. Negative thoughts are stored quickly whereas positive thoughts need to held for at least 15 seconds in order to get stored as memory. The way we think activates different parts of our brain. So if we always think negatively, that part of our brain will grow and we will tend to go on thinking that way. We need to slow down and actively contemplate all the good in our lives. Ignoring problems isn’t helpful but thinking only about our problems is not healthy either.
We have been learning to talk to ourselves like we would talk to someone we love (see my blog: Loving Kindness). In these meditations we have learned to extend compassion to ourselves and others. Gratitude and loving kindness build our capacity to empathize which helps take our minds off ourselves and improves our social competence. And we need to learn to cut ourselves some slack.
We also learned to identify where in the body anxiety manifests for us. This awareness can help nip habitual muscular tension habits that with time cause very real bio-mechanical problems and/or illness. Taksubo Cardiomyopathy (Broken Heart Syndrome), for example, is a kind of heart failure caused by severe grief. Our emotions effect our bodies in very real ways. When we become aware of how our thoughts and feelings are affecting our physical bodies we can deal with it. This may be as simple as letting go, breathing into an area of tension and releasing the tightness - again and again - until this skill becomes an unconscious reflex. It may involve reaching out to someone we trust to share our story or it might even involve professional help - be it a body worker (eg. massage therapist or physiotherapist) or a mental health therapist.
We have learned to take short, side-long glances at our difficult emotions returning to rest our attention on a part of our body that feels good. To be honest, I am not sure how this works but it is a skill that I learned from UCLA free guided meditations (you can google them, they have a whole range of meditations that I have found useful). I am pretty sure it has a physiological rationale. I suspect that you are swapping between different regions of the brain and what you often find is that as you return to the unpleasant thought or feeling time and time again, the strength of it lessens.
All of the above we have practices in meditations that are only 10 mins long. My advice is to use what works for you and drop the rest. If you have found meditation helpful, keep exploring. There are heaps of meditations to be found on YouTube as well as many good phone Apps. I enjoy Jon Kabat Zinn's meditations - many of which are on YouTube. Find what works for you. You may be at the point now where you have developed your own approach and don’t want guided meditations at all - great! - go with that. I know when I started meditating I really appreciated the guidance but as I have continued with it I prefer to do my own thing - the guidance feels noisy and intrusive. This series of meditations have been loosely adapted from headspace.com who have wonderful meditations on just about everything. They have an app available on phone or laptop.
I have found journalling in tandem with meditation to be a helpful life tool. Expressive writing studies (there are over 1000!) done all over the world show that journal-ling our deep emotions helps our physical health, chronic health conditions and days in hospital after surgery. People who journal talk more, laugh more, socialize more and sleep better. Journalling helps me acknowledge when something bad happens. It helps me process it. Putting stuff into words changes the way it is organised in my mind. It helps me work stuff out. I find the ability to make a story out of life’s ups and downs helps me recover from the bad times and savor the good. It’s also free!
There are aspects of anxiety I haven’t covered in these blogs. Its a big topic and I am a fellow sufferer not a therapist. I can only share what has helped me. I am aware that there can be an epi-genetic inheritance of stress and anxiety. Research shows that trauma and stress experienced by a parent can cause changes in the offspring. So if your parents experienced extensive trauma, it can alter your DNA, predisposing you to anxiety and/or depression. Similarly, if you are the adult survivor of adverse childhood experiences (read Childhood Disrupted by Donna Jackson Nakizawa) even though your life may be relatively calm now, it is still possible to suffer from anxiety and a range of other health problems caused by the stress you experienced growing up. Meditation can help but you may need professional support as well.
A lot of what yoga, the wisdom traditions, and meditation have to offer us today is about inner personal transformation. There is another big aspect to consider in terms of health, happiness and fulfillment and that is our external environment. In fact some large research studies are suggesting external factors have a much bigger impact on us than internal ones. I will be exploring these external factors next week.