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Meditating with Anxiety

“I have anxiety and meditation makes it worse.”

If you have ever felt that way, you are not alone. Anxiety is the body’s way of letting us know it’s feeling a lot of stress. For many people, being alone with their thoughts, or even just the idea of that, can add even more anxiety to the already over-alert mind. Here are some tips for meditating when you’re suffering from anxiety.

Even for the uninitiated, meditation can seem like a difficult practice. When you believe you are poor at focusing or concentrating on something. But keep in mind that science now backs meditation practices as being helpful in regulating emotions, which is the most important aspect of dealing with anxiety. Also, if you are someone who has a generalized anxiety disorder, there are specific meditation and breathing techniques that can help you calm your mind meaningfully.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 40 million adults in the US experience some form of anxiety. Does that mean they will never be able to meditate? No. Anxiety is related to our inability to manage our emotions, and research shows that certain meditation techniques can change neural pathways in ways that help us manage our emotions better and with more awareness.

Feeling anxious during certain life situations is common. We’ve all experienced heart palpitations, butterflies in the stomach, and sweat beads during tense or nervous situations like before an important test, interview, or before proposing to someone. But these are all different from what scientists call Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) though symptoms may be similar.

Scientifically speaking, when we are anxious, our adrenal glands move into action, pumping in adrenaline that activates the ‘fight or flight’ response in our body. But it turns into GAD when the irrational worry lingers without a sense of control. It may even grow into a sense of doom, or we may even catastrophize and panic. When anxiety persists and continues to play in the back of our minds, it can affect our daily lives, obstruct work, and lead to poor decision-making. Under such conditions, an individual may lose the sense of rationality and expect the worst-case scenarios to play out without any strong evidence.

How can meditation help?

Often, when the mind is battling with scary and worrying irrational thoughts, meditation can bring you into the present moment and help you observe your thought processes. Taking this step back allows you time to reason with yourself and respond differently. Meditation gives you access to that calm space within yourself, brings a sense of balance, and improves your emotional and mental well-being all at once.

In this space, the simple truth dawns that everything is changing anyway. You also become aware of your inner strength. You come to see how in the past you have passed through difficult situations and nothing could touch you.

Meditation simply helps you take your attention to stillness and calm, away from the object of anxiety or stress. When practiced regularly, the effect and calming benefits of meditation start persisting throughout the day.

A randomized controlled trial conducted in 2013 for 93 people diagnosed with GAD showed that these participants, who underwent an 8-week meditation program, reported reduced anxiety on three of the four measures, along with higher positive statements about themselves.

Experts suggest meditation is an ideal tool for helping treat anxiety because people undergoing GAD struggle with distracting thoughts that seem to overpower their emotional responses. They have a hard time differentiating between a productive thought and an irrational worry. Meditation helps you watch all of your thoughts, including nagging worries.

So when you think, “I missed my deadline and now I am going to get to get fired” or “my girlfriend did not answer her phone. She must be with someone else. Maybe I am not right for her,” meditation practices allow you to see the patterns in these thoughts as exclusive of you.

The Amygdala and Meditation

The two almond-sized outgrowths in the brain’s limbic system called the amygdala are the brain’s processing chip that rules the senses, moods, memories, or decisions. It is our body’s emotional regulating switch. Anxiety can influence the working of the amygdala and the range of how we react to situations from being calm and rational to being over-reactive and anxious. The more anxious we are, the more unreliable and irrational the output from the amygdala.

It is like violently flipping a switch to its breaking point. Constant anxiety also reconfigures the neural pathways through what is known as neuroplasticity. The simple rule here is our brain is trained to respond to experiences we are frequently faced with. Thankfully, this rule will also apply to meditation practices.

Regular meditation can re-configure the neural pathways to work in our favor in dealing with anxiety. Studies show that the amygdala grows smaller with meditation and the prefrontal cortex grows larger. The prefrontal cortex governs awareness. The more aware we are, the better is our response going to be to patterns causing anxiety.

How to meditate when you have anxiety?

Now that we know the science behind how meditation can help with anxiety, it is time to learn how indeed one can meditate while dealing with anxiety.

1. Meditation is de-concentration. Do not try to concentrate or focus when you sit down to meditate. Art of Living Founder and master teacher, Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says, “Meditation is the art of doing nothing. It is not concentration. It is in fact de-concentration. The inner dimension unveiled by the practice of meditation deeply enriches us and its impact slowly spills over to all aspects of life. As prana or life force rises in the body, one starts to feel a transformation as a direct experience and not as a forced mental exercise. One starts becoming happier, creative, and more in command of their mind and emotions.”

2. Observe the thoughts. Simply observe thoughts as they come and go without getting drawn into them. Again and again, become aware of the thoughts. You’ll notice over time, that the frequency of your thoughts reduces.

“You cannot handle the mind from the level of the mind.”—Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

3. Accept the mind. What you resist, persists in the mind. So the more you tell yourself to think in a certain way or to not have thoughts come into the mind, the more they are going to show up, and instead of meditating, you will end up wrestling with incessant thoughts all the time.

The best way to deal with this is to accept the thoughts and emotions, good or bad that come up during your meditation practice. Do not fight them or try to push them away. Sometimes, these thoughts or emotions are part of the cathartic process or emotional purging as you delve deeper into your consciousness. So what can you do with the stream of thoughts?

4. Breathing or pranayamas and emotions. This mind of ours and the emotions that we experience are closely linked to the prana, or life force. When our prana fluctuates, our mind goes on an emotional roller coaster. When your prana is low, you are likely to feel negative emotions like sadness, anger, heaviness, regret, and overall negativity. When your prana is high, you experience positive emotions like joy, enthusiasm, and happiness.

Pranayama: Prana is the universal life force and ‘Ayama’ signifies regulation or extension or dimension. Pranayamas or breathing techniques are one of the most effective ways to prepare your body and mind for deeper meditation.

Ancient seers devised specific ways to regulate the breath for specific effects in the form of pranayamas. For example, if you cannot stop overthinking, try the Bhramari technique. If you are lacking in energy, a few rounds of bhastrika should do the trick.

Read more about pranayamas and how to do them here.

5. SKY breath. After practicing the pranayamas, you can settle down for meditation. If you want to learn a powerful way to handle the anxious mind, consider the Sudarshan Kriya Yoga breathing technique. It silences the mind and gives you a glimpse of an ocean of peace within you. Thereafter, for a few minutes meditation almost effortlessly happens.

6. Bring attention to the body. Become aware of the whole body, the whole breath, and even the area around the body. Feel the sensations of the body. You can try a body scan and bring awareness to each of the body parts. The idea is that just by focusing on the body, your mind automatically relaxes and your mind calms as you concentrate on the body.

7. Be kind to any anxious thoughts. Mindful.org tells us, “As we’re feeling into this body and mind, we may at times continue to experience some anxious thoughts, worries, fears, and there are times when we can use the practice of mindfulness, of inquiry, of investigating to discover potentially the underlying causes of our fears. If it appears that even after practicing the body scan and mindful breathing that we’re persisting with some anxious feelings, bringing attention to those feelings themselves now to acknowledge what’s being felt, feeling into the fear.”

Just keeping these few things in mind can help you move further along in your meditation journey. But at the end of the day, it is important to be kind to yourself on days when meditation seems like a failed endeavor. Remember it is not a ‘doing’ but meditation is a happening. Let it take its own time.

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