“Your mind, emotions, and body are instruments and the way you align and tune them determines how well you play life.” ~Harbhajan Singh Yogi
I can recall my first memory of anxiety at age ten, in fifth grade.
Because the bus arrived in my middle school at precisely 6:22 AM in the morning, I vividly remember the experience.
Each night I would look at my Garfield clock and think, “If I fall asleep now, I’ll get five hours of sleep…. If I fall asleep now, I’ll get four hours of sleep… If I fall asleep now, I’ll get three hours of sleep…”
And without fail, my sister would slam my door open at 6:15 because my alarm didn’t wake me, yelling that we’re going to miss the bus, and this is the last time she’s going to wake me up.
I didn’t know I had anxiety.
When my doctor asked my mother, “How is she sleeping?” the answer was always “She’s never been much of a sleeper.” And that was that.
Or when I couldn’t concentrate in school and do my homework, the “answer” was ADHD and I was given medication, which helped a little but didn’t solve the problem.
The anxiety around going to school in high school was even worse. I couldn’t eat breakfast because I was too nauseous in the morning from stress.
In college my TMJ became so bad I was unable to open my mouth for several months because of the tightness in my jaw. To distract myself from my anxiety, I began scraping my fingers with a dull knife to clean my teeth.
As the years passed, more of these were discovered.
In my late twenties, after panic attacks that sent me to the emergency room, codependent relationships driven by the fear of rejection, and a wreck of a body with daily tension headaches, stomach issues, and a barely existent immune system… I finally figured out that this was all anxiety.
It was starting to make sense why my pursuit of symptom relief for all my physical ailments was not working—I wasn’t getting to the root of the problem.
In came meditation into my life.
And it helped—a lot!
It was a great help in my calm. It showed me how to breathe correctly. I was able to take care of myself every day because it gave me the time and space that I needed.
Because I was doing yoga, taking medicine, exercising, eating healthy and vegetarian, as well as going to the gym, smoking marijuana, and practicing yoga, my anxiety symptoms decreased. But my anxiety didn’t go away… yet.
I didn’t really understand what anxiety was and how meditation helped me (and what was missing) so it kept me from moving forward in my recovery.
How can anxiety be defined?
Many people confuse stress with anxiety.
Stress plays an essential role in our bodies.
When we are faced with triggering events (e.g. a bear, deadlines) our sympathetic nervous system activates and sends adrenaline and cortisol to our bodies. We can then fight back or run from the situation to stay safe.
It diverts energy and resources from “non-essential” systems like digestion and reproductive and immune systems so that it can divert it to our heart, lungs, and large muscles.
It is an immediate reaction which lasts for twenty minutes or until the danger has passed.
Anxiety occurs when the thoughts of our minds activate our stress response.
Our bodies were designed to deal with acute stress but not for long-term stress.
And that’s why we end up with symptoms like:
- Muscle tension
- Gastro-intestinal disorders
- Immune suppression
- Fertility and menstrual problems
- And a thousand other things.
How meditation can ease anxiety
Like I said, I was definitely seeing the benefits of meditation, but I wasn’t seeing more progress with my anxiety.
That’s when I realized I had to change how I meditated and learned how to “practice” even when I wasn’t meditating.
Meditation goes beyond focusing your attention on the breath. Meditation can be a great training tool for your mind.
The goal isn’t to relax (though that is often a wonderful side effect), it is to change your relationship with the thoughts that come into your head.
That was the first lesson that made a world of difference in my practice, learning that “you are not your thoughts.” This is what I did.t blew my mind at first, but then it made sense. I You can find it hereThoughts. To explain something, my brain has ideas, stories, or sentences. These aren’t me, they are just my brain firing off ideas.
Focused-attention meditation is similar to mindfulness meditation. It teaches three things: Notice, Acknowledge, and Redirect.
When we meditate, we NoticeWhen our focus has been moved from the focal point (e.g. our breath)
Then we Recognizee this without judgment, maybe even label what we were thinking about like “planning” or “worrying.”
And then we gently release our hold on that thought and redirect our attention back to where we want it—our breath.
Recognizing, acknowledging, redirecting is a process that teaches us to:
- Keep your eyes on the present
- Be conscious of your thoughts
- Be curious, not judgmental
- Be patient and practice self-compassion
- Give up on control
All of these skills are essential for learning to be able to respond differently to anxiety-provoking thoughts.
Once I started thinking of meditation as practice—like football practice—I began to realize that each two, five, or twenty-minute session of meditation was really preparing my mind to handle the real-world stressors Take offMy meditation cushion.
So, when I texted a friend and she didn’t text back (an old trigger of mine), I was learning how to:
- Notice: “Ah, I’m feeling anxious because I am thinking the reason she hasn’t replied is because she doesn’t like me as much as I like her, and I’m believing that her reply would prove that I am good enough and likable.”
- Acknowledge: “This is an uncomfortable feeling, but I will allow it to be here until it has passed. Even though she hasn’t replied, I choose to love and accept myself.”
- Redirect: “I open to the possibility that her lack of reply could have another explanation—she may be busy or sick or forgot to reply. You can either wait, or you can send her another message. Even if she is angry with me, I can make amends because I am a good person.”
Instead of swirling down the rabbit hole of “what is wrong with me?”, I was learning to recognize these thoughts as just ideas that my brain served up based on a habit I’d cultivated after years of believing I wasn’t good enough.
While this understanding didn’t stop me from having those thoughts, it reduced them, and it taught me to change my relationship with them. Instead of believing them as truth, I was now able to see them for what they are—a defense mechanism to try and keep me safe.
Even though I now know that meditation can be used as a form of training, there was something missing.
My anxiety had improved tremendously, but I was still experiencing physical symptoms like tightness in my chest or constriction of my throat.
This is when I learned that meditation engages our parasympathetic nervous system—our rest and digest mode.
To engage defenses we have both a sympathetic nervous systems and a parasympathetic nervous to detach them.
That’s why we often find meditation relaxing. Anxiety keeps our fight-or-flight mode engaged, so by slowing down, focusing on the breath, and relaxing our body, we’re able to tell our nervous system that we’re safe and it’s okay to chill out.
Your body stores your emotions
Even though I’d made huge progress in disengaging from anxious thoughts, and I was able to stop believing the ideas that “I’m not good enough and no one likes me,” I still felt that physical anxiety tension in my body.
That’s the piece that was missing for me for many years—the knowledge that our emotions get stored in our physical body. That means we can store a memory in our muscles of our past responses to stress triggers.
Are you nervous about meeting deadlines? Even if you relax and realize you don’t have anything to worry about, your body feels tight. That’s what I’m talking about.
Meditation helped reduce my physical symptoms but I was still prone to tension. I came to realize that we each need find the right tools for us—beyond meditation—to continually and regularly engage our calming systems.
You have many options. Practicing yoga, walking or dancing, laughing, singing, petting a cute puppy… all of which helped me some.
Other embodiment techniques can also send information to the vagus nerve, which is a large part of our parasympathetic systems. This can help us feel safe and allow us to relax.
My fascination was heightened when I discovered that our nervous system creates muscle tension. If you are put under anesthesia for example, your muscles will go limp. Your nervous system will remember the areas that were tense, and it will tighten up once you wake up.
This feeling of physical tension sends a signal back up to our brains that we are not completely safe, and that’s why it’s hard to shake that feeling of anxiety even when all is well.
These practices, in conjunction with meditation, helped me to relieve that tension.
- Acupuncture (I had a hugePhysical release following a session was something that I experienced once.
- Tapping (EFT)
- Kundalini breathwork
- A few basic vagal nerve stimulation techniques can send sensory information direct to the nervous system.
A good example of activating the vagal nerve is to lay on your stomach with your nose pointed up toward the ceiling. Use your only eyes to look towards the right. Keep looking until you see a change in your energy. Relax back to neutral, then look off towards the left.
If you’ve practiced meditation to help with your anxiety and it didn’t work, or didn’t completely work, try the notice, acknowledge, and redirect technique I mentioned above to take power back from anxious thoughts. You can also try new embodiment practices to release the tension if your anxiety is still present.
About Sandy Woznicki
Sandy helps women suffering from anxiety and high functioning to feel calm, confident, and capable of handling any challenge life may throw at them. After suffering from anxiety for decades, Sandy’s superpower and passion is making the path out of chronic stress and self-criticism simple and clear to get your life back and genuinely start enjoying it (and realize that you are worth it!)! Get her Stress Detox Mini Course for free!
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