Anxiety & Meditation
Yes, those who suffer with anxiety may find it more difficult to meditate:
Anxiety is perpetuated by one’s desire to escape it. Anxious individuals tend to have an underlying fear that one’s unpleasant feelings or thoughts may become a static reality, so they label their anxious state as unwanted and do not allow themselves to experience the sensations and thoughts. As a result, anxious individuals do not allow distressing experiences to come and go with an attitude of acceptance and kindness. People who experience anxiety are usually highly aware of their internal sensations and label any changes in their internal state as possibly dangerous or a sign of something “bad” looming in the near future. Being asked to face their sensations without attempting to judge them can be a significant challenge. This resistance can make it more challenging for an anxious individual to start a meditation practice because there is a sense that they do not have control, another driving feature of anxiety. By meditating, an individual has the unique opportunity to experience the thoughts and feelings that he/she has likely been avoiding, and to form a new relationship with these bodily sensations and cognitions so that one can learn to accept things as they are as opposed to continually struggling because one wants things to be different. One learns to embrace that this is what he/she is experience at this moment in time, and that experiences change from moment to moment.
Misconceptions exist about practicing meditation when one has anxiety:
Mainstream media often suggests that meditation is about relaxation, so people with anxiety often rush to try it as a resource to quiet one’s mind, but find that they are flooded with intense emotions or thoughts and cannot connect with the “peace of mind” a meditation practice can offer. So, meditation newbies that suffer from anxiety may say that it does not work or is not for them. However, I often view that as a sign of how beneficial a meditation practice can be for that person. A meditative state can lead to a relaxed parasympathetic nervous system response, which is highly desired by those who suffer from anxiety. However, meditation is not about relaxation. Meditation is about cultivating a state of active awareness. So, this means that one may feel tense, angry, or sad while meditating, and that is perfectly okay. Another common misconception about meditation is that you have to sit and look stoic while doing so! Meditation is not an act of “doing” but an act of “being.” I teach that you can meditate anywhere, any time, with any activity! You can take a meditative walk, chant, sing, and even dance with the intention of cultivating mindfulness and increasing your level of awareness. This means if someone has a tendency to be anxious and is out in public, he/she can use their meditation practice as their anchor to identifying and embracing their current situation so that they can teach their mind to accept and eventually let go of their anxious state.
Advice for those who want to start practicing meditation but have trouble clearing his or her mind:
Meditation is not about getting rid of all your thoughts. A wonderful byproduct of meditation may be a clear mind, but the goal of meditation is not to think about nothing, so you are not doing it “wrong” if your mind wanders! The key to a successful meditation practice is consistency. Try to meditate at the same time every day and remind yourself of your intention for meditating that day. This could range from, I want to be more focused in my school work to I want to learn to accept myself. An intention is not meant to be a goal that one must reach; rather, it is just a direction we want to head. Once you have set your intention and settled into your meditative posture, spend a few moments directing your attention to the breath to settle the mind for your practice. Begin to notice the temperature, texture, speed, flavor, etc. If thoughts pop into your mind, acknowledge them through a lens of kindness, and redirect your attention to your breath. If one’s anxiety becomes overwhelming and one feels like he/she is being bombarded with thoughts and is not able to attune to the breath, one can visualize the word inhale in the minds eye as one inhales, and visualize the word exhale as one exhales. Usually, the mind will be satisfied with this amount of stimulation and will begin to settle onto the breath and then eventually into a heightened state of awareness and stillness.