April 08, 2022 9 min read

If you are struggling with anxiety, mindfulness meditation may be a great way to find peace in the midst of chaos. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults in the US each year. While there are many different treatments available for anxiety, mindfulness meditation has been shown to be one of the most effective and natural methods; helping you learn to live in the moment and not get overwhelmed by internal and external stressors that may trigger your symptoms.

What is mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness is a form of insight meditation that involves focusing on the present moment and accepting thoughts and feelings without judgement. Mindfulness has been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms related to anxiety, including panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and social anxiety. It can also help you deal with internal and external stressors the moment they arise. Mindfulness teaches you to accept your thoughts and feelings, instead of trying to fight them or get rid of them. This can help you feel more in control and less overwhelmed in your day to day life. Mindfulness also helps you develop a greater sense of self-awareness, which can make it easier to notice when you are feeling anxious and take steps to deal with it.

The science behind mindfulness:

There is a growing body of research that supports the use of mindfulness meditation for anxiety. A study published in the journal Mindfulness in 2016 found that mindfulness was effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and stress in both healthy adults and those with diagnosed anxiety disorders.

Another study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014, looked at the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on anxiety, stress, and mood in adults with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder. The study found that MBSR was effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as improving mood.

How do I start a mindfulness meditation practice?

Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere, so you don't need any special equipment or supplies. All you need is yourself and your breath.

-To get started, find a comfortable seat where you can sit for about 10-20 minutes without experiencing pain— This can be on a chair with your feet on the ground or seated on a cushion on the floor to help elevate your hips.

-You should sit with your spine loosely straight— neither too rigid nor too floppy.

-You can lightly close your eyes or keep them open and gazing softly at a fixed point in front of you, slightly downward about 6 inches from the tip of the nose.

-Take a few deep, intentional breaths to center yourself, and then begin to breathe normally as you focus your awareness on the breath.

-Notice the sensation of the air passing in and out of your nose or mouth.

-When your mind inevitably wanders, simply notice the thought or feeling without judgement and then gently redirect your attention back to the breath.

-Notice any emotional states or physical sensations you are experiencing and then without judging your experience, bring your awareness back to the breath.

-Continue for a set amount of time, and then slowly begin to wiggle your fingers and toes, stretch your arms and legs, and come up gradually from your seat.

Tips for beginners:

  1. Start slowly. Short sessions are best to start with, about 5-10 minutes or so.
  2. Consistency is key. Setting daily reminders help you build a daily habit.
  3. Be patient. Mindfulness is a practice, and like all practices it takes time to develop. As my teacher says: "It is about short moments, many many times."
  4. You will get lost in thought. When you realize you are lost in thought, simply notice that you are thinking and bring your awareness back to the breath.
  5. Don't judge your experience. There is no right or wrong way to pay attention to your experience. Simply notice what you are experiencing and then bring your awareness back to the breath.

Practicing mindfulness off the cushion (or chair)

Mindfulness can be practiced in all aspects of your life.

-When you are eating, pay attention to the texture, flavor, and smell of the food. Chew slowly and mindfully, noticing how the food feels in your mouth.

-When you are walking, focus on the sensations of your feet hitting the ground and the movement of your body.

-When you are interacting with others, be present and attentive to the conversation without waiting for your turn to speak.

-Notice the sights and sounds around you and how you are feeling in the moment.

-When you experience difficult emotions or become triggered, pay attention to the physical sensations in your body (tightness in the chest or throat, flushing of the face, racing heartbeat, knots in stomach) and then bring awareness to your breath.

Why this helps:

Paying attention to what is happening in the present moment, especially in the midst of chaos helps to identify the subtle nuances of emotional triggers before your mind is able to get overwhelmed by discursive thoughts.

My experience with anxiety and panic attacks

There is no doubt that symptoms of anxiety can be debilitating. I, myself have experienced these debilitating symptoms for most of my life. My first panic attack (that I can remember) happened at the age of 9 when my great grandmother passed away suddenly. I remember the crushing sensation inside my chest, the tightening of my throat, gasping for air, and the horrible sense of impending doom. For a long time, I thought everybody around me was going to die and I would not have the opportunity to say goodbye or tell them that I loved them. The next time I experienced a panic attack was after being severely bullied at school. This time I got physically nauseas and vomited all over my bathroom floor. I avoided any potential encounter with my bullies and was often late to class... which prompted more anxiety and fear that I would be in trouble, prompting more panic attacks and anxiety.

Over the years, these symptoms became unbearable. The fear of experiencing a panic attack would bring on a panic attack. I eventually sought professional help from a therapist and was prescribed medication which helped.... sort of. It was nothing more than a bandage to cover the wound that kept appearing, seemingly out of nowhere. The problem was that I was treating the symptoms but unable to get to the root cause of the issue. I hated the medication and eventually stopped taking it altogether. I didn't like feeling dependent on a pill to alleviate my symptoms so I started to explore other options.

My first experience with formal meditation:

At 17 years old, a friend introduced me to Buddhism through the Zen tradition. My first experience with meditation was more annoying than anything. My friend didn't tell me what to do or what to expect— we were running about 10 minutes late and by the time we arrived, the entire sangha (spiritual community or congregation) was already seated on the floor and sitting in silence with their eyes closed.... and there they remained for what seemed like an eternity (1 hour).

As they sat in perfect stillness, I was anything but. My eyes darted around waiting for one of them to budge. After the eternal hour was up, the Zen master opened his eyes and began to speak the most profound words that changed my life.

He said something along the lines of: "Imagine you are standing on a riverbank watching the water pass by and you throw a pebble into the water. The pebble touches the surface of the water and then gently falls to the bottom of the river bed. It does not fight with the water to get to the bottom, it simply falls. When it hits the bottom of the riverbed, it rests and continues to rest, allowing the water above it to pass by. Be like the pebble, resting on the bottom of the riverbed and observe the water passing overhead. The water is your thoughts, emotions, and moment to moment experience. There is nothing to grasp, nothing to hold onto; you simply allow it to come and go."

The waterfall:

In the beginning, meditation was challenging, as it is for most people. My mind was all over the place, continually lost in thought. I can remember feeling as though I had reached a part of the river that was just beneath a waterfall; constantly being pummeled by the water falling overhead.

I had been living on autopilot, being controlled by my thoughts and emotions. They defined who I believed myself to be. I can remember thinking that I must be "doing it wrong," but my teacher reassured me and instructed me to let go of any judgement about my practice and keep meditating every day. As my practice began to grow into a solid foundation, I started to notice some troubling patterns in my waking life.

On the surface, it seemed like the symptoms of anxiety were becoming more pronounced and occurring more frequently.

"Was I getting worse?" I wondered.

Again, my teacher reassured me. He told me that in the beginning, it will seem like my mental afflictions were constant. However, he said "It is not that you are experiencing them more often or more intensely, it is just that you are noticing how often they are happening and controlling your life." I asked him what I could do about this and he said "Keep meditating." So I did.

After careful examination I began to realize he was right.

The anxious thoughts in my mind and the energy I was feeling in my body was there most of the time and had been happening since early childhood; the difference was that I was simply noticing it more often. As I began to pay attention more closely, I started waking up. I was gaining control of my experience and turning off autopilot.

This is an interesting phenomenon that occurs with many people. The episodes were neither more frequent nor more intense— it was that my attention was becoming more astute. My moment to moment experience was giving me clarity.

This does not mean that I was suddenly cured of anxiety and panic— on the contrary. I was experiencing it often and to be honest, it was not fun.

Then something magical happened. I started to notice the subtle nuances of panic and anxiety, the moment they would arise. When the sensations of anxiety and panic attacks would rear their ugly heads, I noticed my heart, my throat, my stomach, and my breath. It felt as thought someone had a rope binding me from the inside and with each passing moment, it began to tighten down. My heart would race, my breathing was erratic and intense, my stomach would turn and my throat would tighten.

I was starting to notice when I was becoming triggered BEFORE my thoughts had the opportunity to take over.

"Just breathe, accept, and let go" I would say to myself.

Learning to accept & let things go

For me, learning to accept my experience was not horribly difficult. I would feel these less than desirable sensations intensely for a moment and rather than running from them, I would remind myself that it was only temporary and then bring my awareness to the breath.

In western psychology, many therapists (including my own) teach various breathing techniques to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety. I believe it is not so much the breathing technique that helps alleviate symptoms but rather the focus of attention. It is impossible to focus on two things simultaneously; if you are focused on the breath, you are not focused on your thoughts or emotions and therefore it is impossible to get carried away with them.

This takes practice— A LOT of practice (at least from my own experience).

Learning how to accept and let go is one of the hardest and most important lessons we can ever learn; but it is possible and accessible to everyone who has the discipline and patience to practice.

Mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool that allows us to see our thoughts and emotions for what they are— momentary experiences that come and go. We don't have to get caught up in them or identify with them. We don't have to allow our thoughts to control us. When we can observe our experience without judgement, we can start to see the beauty and perfection in even our most difficult moments. We can find peace in the midst of chaos.

I am no longer on autopilot. Through mindfulness, I have become the captain of my own ship. I am no longer a victim of my thoughts and emotions, but rather the observer. From this place of neutrality, I can see that my thoughts and emotions are simply water passing by. They come and they go, but they do not control me anymore.

I am not saying that mindfulness will cure your anxiety or panic attacks overnight. This is a lifetime practice. There have been times I have stepped away from my practice and gotten lost for months and even years. Each time I returned to my practice, it was though I was starting again at the beginning. I was learning to experience, accept, and then let go— again and again.

For the past several years my practice has been stable. I practice formally (on my cushion) for at least 20 minutes each day. Granted, I have skipped days here and there and when that happens, I definitely notice the effects... but what is incredible about this is that I NOTICE!

I have to remind myself that the river of life is sometimes turbulent with rapids overhead, I know the rough water will pass and eventually become calm.

Mindfulness is a journey, not a destination. However, I can say from personal experience that it has helped me immensely in managing my anxiety and finding peace in the midst of chaos. If you are struggling with anxiety or panic attacks, I encourage you to give mindfulness meditation a try. It just might be the answer you are looking for.

Do you suffer from anxiety or panic attacks? Does meditation help? Please leave a comment below.

If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness meditation but do not know where to start, please reach out to me via email at marylee@malaofmerit.com

 

 

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