The tingly buzz of anxiety was such a palpable and familiar part of me that it wasn’t until a few years ago that I realised it wasn’t ‘me’.
The fuzzy, hot sensation that radiated out from my chest and into my neck and down my arms was background noise, the soundtrack to my life.
On reflection I think I had flashes or short periods of time when it wasn’t there, but mostly it was, underlying most of my decisions, reactions, thoughts and drove many of my behaviors. It definitely fuelled my excessive drinking and innate desire to people please.
After meditating for several years, my relationship to this sensation changed – anxiety is a sensation in the body that the mind tries to control or ‘fix’ with thoughts of how to change the current situation or pre-empt anything that might happen. Anxious thoughts tend to live in the future, accompanied by a sense that the other shoe is about to drop or that something terrible might/is about to happen; that we’re not good enough/smart enough/attractive enough an endless list of fear-based mind chatter. These thoughts feed the anxious sensation by a perpetual triggering of our survival/stress response.
These days, I rarely experience anxiety. And if I do, I don’t judge the experience, nor am I harsh on myself. I know the sensation has come to teach me something.
I have worked with many of my students to reframe their relationship with anxiety, and also depression, as the two often go hand-in-hand. There are many patient, and holistic ways in which to understand this state of being and ask it ‘why it’s there’. In many cases, my students have even been able to come off their anxiety medication gradually and with deep guidance and support from more holistic health care practitioners.
Here are some of my understandings of anxiety and how meditation has helped me and my students but please note it isn’t designed as a diagnosing tool or a treatment path, for that it is helpful to work with an experienced meditation teacher and psychologist.
It has been there for a while. If you stop and reflect upon when the first time you felt anxious was, you’ll most probably trace it back to a distant memory. We can think it’s triggered by something happening to us now, but when you go into the feeling it will most probably be a familiar response, a pattern in your life. This is the beginning of a new, compassionate relationship with our long, term companion. If it has been there for a while, we must be patient as it takes its time revealing what it needs to about us. Distance yourself from the stories or the ‘perceived’ reasons why it’s there, and focus on the sensation.
Acceptance is the key. To understand how meditation helps with anxiety, first we must process that we don’t use meditation as a way to fix or change ourselves. It’s actually the complete opposite. By the acceptance and the non-resistance of what is happening i.e the sensations (in my case the feelings around my chest, heart, throat, arms) and the accompanying fear-based thoughts, the experience is gradually softened and opens up. Meditation puts us in direct contact with our present moment; no more running away or numbing out but pure, undivided presence.
Everything has momentum. This includes our thoughts and feelings. Most of us are completely unconscious to the fact that we spend an inordinate and exhausting amount of time resisting, fighting, numbing, repressing these thoughts and feelings. This creates tension, unease and friction further fuelling our anxiousness. As we meditate what we are really practicing is acceptance, compassion, patience and awareness. No longer resisting our present experience and giving our thoughts and feelings all the space and time they need, eventually they dissolve. Much like a wave – which reaches a crescendo and then crashes over itself, the whitewash pushing up the beach, it is eventually absorbed into the sand.
As we practice awareness, patience, compassion and non-resistance the nervous system responds in a phenomenally beautiful way. It calms. It tells the body we are safe, and that we can relax. This means that the adrenaline and cortisol that was surging through our body shifts and we start to produce hormones that make us feel calmer, happier, more content – like serotonin and oxytocin. As this chemical shift occurs the thoughts follow suit, becoming more positive; a reflection of the change in our chemical and internal landscape.
Consistency. The only way meditation is effective in alleviating stress and anxiety is with regular, and long-term practice. This is the non-negotiable part to this, which means commitment and a gentle discipline. Every day we do a self-check in to see how we are doing and we practice patience, compassion and ultimately the art of going with the flow.
Article by Claire Robbie. Claire is an Awareness-based Meditation teacher. She teaches from her studio in Auckland, New Zealand and also runs online courses. More information at www.clairerobbie.co.