One of my early motivations for learning to meditate was the hope it would help me manage anxiety. My tendency is to the free-floating, generalized kind of fear that lends a nervous edge to every thought, often accompanied by heart palpitations, gut churning, and a general jumpiness that makes it hard to rest.
At its worst, during my late twenties, I was caught in this anxious state for a number of years, despite the fact that outwardly my life looked safe, stable, and privileged. Since then, these episodes of inner hyper-restlessness have diminished, both in frequency and duration. In no small part, I think this is due to mindfulness practice—these days I’m more aware of the conditions that tend to trip the switch for anxiety for me (such as taking on more than I have resources to cope with, or personal, social and professional rejection). I’m also better equipped to deal with it—I’m more able to slow down, be gentle and patient with the symptoms, trust that the panic will pass, and engage with confidence-building activities that tend to restore steadiness.
The fear still comes to haunt me every now and then—but my relationship to it has changed. Earlier this year, a convergence of work pressures and family demands set my heart pounding, and the ferris wheel of catastrophe started whirling in my mind. I wasn’t sleeping at night, on top of which our two young children were waking well before dawn. Anxiety, fatigue, and a full schedule—not the loveliest of combinations…
In the past, this could easily have led to a spiralling down of mood and lots of reactivity, quickly shifting to a more pernicious worry about how anxiety itself was making everything worse, reducing my capacity to cope and making simple everyday tasks seem Herculean. Instead, seeing as sleep wasn’t coming at night, I decided to use the time for meditation. For several hours over several nights, I practised mindfulness of breathing, saying to myself gently: Breathing in confidence, breathing out, letting be. Sometimes, cultivating acceptance of what was happening while reaffirming my ability to cope confidently with it felt awkward, stupid, or pointless, but gently I continued regardless.
Some nights I was awake until one of our boys got up, while others I fell asleep during practice in the early hours. What seemed important was that I allowed the outcome not to matter—whether it helped or not, for now I just let meditation be something I did with the extra waking time. As it turned out, I noticed that sustained practice tended to lead to a settling of my mind and body, rather than the escalation of frustration I had encountered in previous similar situations.
Over a period of a few weeks, the phase of anxiety slowly dissolved. It hadn’t been very pleasant, but with mindfulness as an anchor, I learned some interesting and useful things. First, that I still have more to learn about maintaining a healthy balance between work, home, life and rest, and second, that consciously cultivating confidence and co-operation, along with mindful breathing, can gradually help me back to calm.
I was also reminded that a growing power seems to come from meditation over months and years. In the early days of practice, trying a similar approach during the onset of an episode used to have little effect—my mindfulness then was no match for the force of old habit patterns. Fortunately, I didn’t give up—mindfulness had already proved helpful in other ways and at other times. But now, after 15 years of regular practice, it seems there’s been some shift in the patterns of mind, brain and body that makes me susceptible to chronic jitters. So much so that some of the nervousness I felt was dissipated—over time—by simply inviting confidence with each breath. And that, of course, was a further boost to confidence and another antidote to anxiety.