It was a difficult time. My father had just moved away, my dream of becoming a professional athlete fell through, and I started to experience extremely low self-confidence as a result of what I deemed physical imperfections. Over the span of a couple of years, the anxiety, which was mainly triggered in social settings, began to strangle me like a vine slowly overtaking a tree.
One moment defined the peak of this turmoil. During an overcast day, I was sitting in my car at the university parking lot. At that moment, I felt afraid to leave the car because of my anxiety. I felt paralyzed and powerless.
Living in the Age of Anxiety
Anxiety comes in many shapes and forms. For some, anxiety is a once-in-a-while phenomenon that arises only during certain activities, such as when running late or before a public speech. For others, anxiety might be more commonplace. For these individuals, anxiety might arise every time they are communicating with others or every time they go out in public. The “bible” of mental health, the DSM-5, describes different types of anxiety, ranging from separation anxiety disorder to social anxiety disorder. For our purposes, we can view anxiety as a spectrum.
On one side of the spectrum is a complete lack of anxiety. On the other side lies anxiety so debilitating that it prevents us from living our lives. Most of us probably lie somewhere along the middle of this spectrum. In our traffic-consumed, technology-addicted society, however, it appears that the new midpoint has swung towards the right part of the spectrum. Living with anxiety has become the new normal.
Unfortunately, uncontrolled anxiety can lead to harmful consequences. As anxiety arises within us, our body’s fight-or-flight response gets activated. Hormones such as cortisol flood our system and cause increased heart rate, shaking, and slowed digestion.
Fortunately, there are research-backed methods that help in reducing or coping with anxiety. The Mayo Clinic emphasizes that therapy and medication have been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety. There is, however, another method that has been shown to be effective: meditation.
What the &*^% is meditation and how does it help with anxiety?
Credits: Le Minh Phuong https://unsplash.com/photos/niH7Z81S44g
Meditation is a mental exercise that is done to achieve a mentally clear or calm state of mind. Sometimes, meditation might be done for reasons that include spiritual growth and development. Meditation, however, is a non-religious practice.
And meditation, like the word “sport,” encompasses a variety of different types or styles of meditation. Some types of meditation use breathing techniques, yet others use special words called mantras. Some meditation styles focus on cultivating present-moment awareness and nonjudgement, while others still focus on cultivating compassion.
Meditation, as every activity we engage in, leads to physical changes within our brain. For example, brain scientists have shown that meditators’ brains show thickening in certain brain regions that are involved in emotional regulation and learning. As our brain changes, we change. And as we change, so does our relationship with our anxiety.
Anxiety: Part 2
In Japan, the art of Kintsugi involves repairing broken pottery with lacquer and gold, silver, or platinum. After being repaired, the pottery is seen as being beautiful and symbolic because of its breakage. Lying paralyzed in the garage, I felt shattered. But like a Kintsugi bowl, my cracks would lead to something new – something stronger.
During that painful moment, I recognized that something needed to change. Among the many changes I implemented was a daily meditation practice. I started off small – no more than five or ten minutes at a time. Through my practice, I started to feel calmer and more centered. Over time, I began to wield the upper hand over this anxiety.
Before meditation, whenever I started to feel anxious, I would start to feel anxiety or fear about having anxiety. This created a cycle which further strengthened the anxiety. Through meditation, I slowly began to break this cycle. Over time, meditation taught me to stay aware through the anxiety and to observe it nonjudgmentally (in meditation, the combination of nonjudgement and present-moment awareness is called mindfulness).
Through non-judgement and awareness, the fundamental teachings of meditation, I learned to stop feeding the cycle of anxiety. Nowadays, although I still experience anxiety from time to time, it does not have a strong influence in my life.