Anxiety, mindfulness meditation and neg-fu
Over the last year I've being dealing with a lot of anxiety. This felt weird to me because I never would have described myself as an anxious person.
Though in reality it doesn't really matter how I describe myself. Anxiety doesn't care.
For me anxiety is a snake with many heads that skulks around in your subconscious waiting for an opportunity to squeeze a little bit of the life out of you so it can feed itself.
One of those heads would suck the air out of my lungs, making it impossible to take a deep breath. That one I call 'Panic'. He strikes randomly and brings with him a feeling of dread. Interestingly that little guy is poking his head out as I write this.
The next one is named 'Pulse'. That's the one that wraps its jaw around your heart and either constricts or chews. It depends how he's feeling that day.
When he constricts you really feel it. A horrible tightness in your chest. I'd be lying if I said I never thought to myself 'Is this my heart attack?' (there's a family history there). When he chews it sends your pulse racing. I'm not sure which feels worse.
Up next is 'Punctuality'. He's a timid little guy most of the time, but when you've got to be somewhere he freaks. This is the only head that will cause stress in other people as I scurry around trying to placate him. I hate being late. This is probably my single biggest source of anxiety, even when I know being late will have no real negative consequences. I'll have a predefined time in my head and if I'm not at a place or finished doing something by that time then Punctuality loses his mind, and when he does he brings Panic and Pulse along with him.
The final head, and my least favorite, is the only one that is visible externally and his name is 'Psoriasis'.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that effects the skin and is worsened by stress and anxiety. Psoriasis is a real kick in the teeth as it results in red, flaky and sometimes cracked skin. This visual aspect of the disease of course causes anxiety, which in turn worsens the symptoms of the disease. A stressful catch 22. It's most common on the scalp but can affect the whole body and there are no know cures.
So that's my unwanted pet snake: Panic, Pulse, Punctuality and Psoriasis. For different people the heads might be different. Clearly my snake is into alliteration, though doesn't realize the P in psoriasis is silent!
Unfortunately this is a pet snake that I can't just flush down the toilet, so what do I do? From a standard (read: western) medical point of view not much. There are pills I could take, but they only deal with symptoms not causes. My snake would still be there, he'd just be sleepy.
So with western medicine ruled out (for me anyway, I didn't want to treat this with drugs) I turned to the east. To meditation.
I'll be honest, the thought of meditation did not appeal to me. I am a fidgety person (just ask anyone who has ever had to sit near me and deal with my leg constantly bouncing up and down), so the thought of sitting still for any period of time makes me uncomfortable. However the more I learned about it the more I felt I had to at least give it a try.
There are a few different types of meditation. The one generally associated with stress and anxiety reduction is 'Mindfulness Meditation' so that's where I set my sights.
It seems easy, but it's not. Trust me. On paper it looks like this:
Sit upright in a comfortable but wakeful position. This can be on the floor or on a chair.
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths to get settled - proper deep breaths, right into your belly.
Try to empty your mind and simply focus on your breathing. You're not trying to control your breathing, just simply make a little mental note every time you breath in and out. This is your anchor point.
If you like you can scan through your body. Starting at the toes work your way up through your body just noting any sensations, discomfort or even pain. Don't do anything about it, just be aware.
Maintain this for a period of time. In the beginning it may be 1 minute, then 5, 10, 15, 20. However long you've got.
Simple right? Just sit down and shut up. But no, your brain will have none of that. 'This is my time to shine!' it thinks.
Your mind will go for a stroll, maybe even a jog. That embarrassing thing you did yesterday? Yeah you're gonna hear about that. 'What about tomorrows dinner?' it asks. Or 'did you leave the window open? What if a rabid animal jumps in a mauls you while you're just sitting here like an idiot with your eyes closed?' It will probably also tell you how boring this is and might try to convince you that what you are doing is a waste of time.
This is perfectly normal. The goal is to simply recognize when this happens and then bring your attention back to your breath or your body. Your brain will fight this. Some days it will put up more of a fight than others. You've gotta just keep on pushing back.
While you are meditating you can also label some of the thoughts that your brain is firing at you. Perhaps you are 'planning', or 'dwelling'. Maybe there is a 'happy' thought or a 'sad' one. You can attach these labels to your thoughts and simply move on. This aspect of meditation is what led to a light bulb moment for me.
I was labeling the thoughts that were popping into my head and a pattern started to emerge pretty quickly. A label that I was using far more than any other. That label was 'negative future thought' or neg-fu for short. It has a nice ring to it right?.
Neg-fu is the art of creating negativity about your own future.
A thought about tomorrow's commute to work would pop into my head and I'd think "traffic is going to be horrible". I would think about something I had to do in work, which got an "ugh, that's going to suck". I was stuck in a pattern of thinking about the future, planning what I would be doing and attaching some negative label. No wonder I was suffering with anxiety, a huge portion of my mental energy was being devoted to thinking about how my future was going to suck. Even something enjoyable like going to the cinema was subject to neg-fu: 'really looking forward to this film, but it will probably be ruined by someone eating loudly or using their phone.'
I'd like to be able to say that once I identified this mentally draining and self destructive pattern I immediately stopped doing it and felt a lot better. I didn't.
I did, however, become a lot more aware of it and that is half the battle. Now starts the long process of trying to reprogram my thought patterns. To stop these thoughts in their tracks and try to steer my mind down a more positive route.
I'm no meditation guru but in the short time (three months of daily practice at the time of writing) that I have been practicing meditation I have definitely felt some of the benefits. I am more relaxed and my mind feels like it is carrying less weight. I feel the effects of anxiety far less often. I can also sit still for longer than ten minutes - a herculean task by my standards!
Mediation is my Pungi (that weird whistle thing that snake charmers use). The snake is still there, he just doesn't have as much control as he used to. I've got a Pungi and I'm learning how to use it.
I have also seen some improvements in my psoriasis, though it's hard to say whether this is mainly dietary (whole food plant based diet and reduced gluten intake), but meditation certainly doesn't hurt.
Would I recommend meditation to someone else? Absolutely, in fact I think everyone should do it. Here as some things I have learned and some tips on how I think you can get the most out of it:
1. Get a Teacher
Use either an app or find an actual meditation teacher. You can't just sit down, close your eyes and expect to reach Nirvana. Meditation is a skill that you need to practice and your practice will be much more effective if you have a teacher (links to and thoughts on apps I have used below).
2. Consistency is key
Consistency is key. You have to meditate every day. Meditation once a week for 60 minutes will be far less effective than finding 5 minutes every day for a quick session.
3. Stick with it
Don't worry if you have a bad practice or if after a few days you struggle to sit still and quiet your mind. It can take years, decades even, to become proficient at meditation (or so I've heard from people far more knowledgeable than me).
If after a few days you find you're struggling don't worry, that's completely normal. You wouldn't pick up a musical instrument and expect to be able to play after a few practice sessions. Give it time. To stick with the musical instrument analogy for a minute, I feel like I've gotten to the point when I can just about play a song... badly. I've got three chords under my belt and can transition between them. A bad rendition of Wonderwall may be the most apt description of my progress, but I've got my eye on Voodoo Child. That's the goal.
4. Don't dismiss it because of the new-age spiritual aspect
I've never been the most spiritual person in the world, though I feel like that is changing a bit lately. Either way, don't be put off by the new age 'woo-woo' aspect of meditation. Unlike Raki or healing crystals there is actually a solid body of scientific evidence building around the practice of meditation. Psychology Today published this article a few years back that lists out some of those benefits and is worth checking out if you are skeptical.
Meditation Apps I've tried
The most well known of the many meditation apps available. You need to subscribe to gain full access to all of the practices, but there is enough there for free to get you started. I really like this app and am happy to pay for the service. The guided meditation is clear and concise and clearly explains how even though it might feel like you are sucking at meditation you aren't.