The number one thing that helped me become less anxious

I live with anxiety every day. It may wax and wane from one day to the next, but it is always there in the background. I have learned enough about myself at this point to know that it is simply part of who I am. It’s not good or bad; it’s just something that I need to deal with.

My daily anxieties range from general social anxiety to specific anxious thoughts about not accomplishing enough — to the very best kind: anxiety about absolutely nothing at all.

Throughout high school and college, I thought the best way to manage my anxiety was to out-think it. Intellectualizing my problems appeared to work because I did not yet have the real demands of an adult life. I may have had a lot of classes and extracurricular activities crammed into my schedule, but the consequences for not accomplishing them were never actually something severe like not losing my job and not having enough money. Thinking and thinking until I devised a solution seemed like a great idea.

Unfortunately, this does not typically work — and it especially did not not as I got older and became an adult. Flitting from one anxious thought to the next expends a lot of emotional energy. It kept me enmeshed with already unhealthy thought processes. Thinking about my thoughts did not release them from my brain. I was just overloading my brain with more anxious thoughts, effectively jamming them in there as a stopgap, much like a cork in a barrel.

But I also soothed my anxieties with exercise. I have always been physically active, and I knew that I always felt better as a kid after physically exerting myself by playing sports or by going for a run. Getting exercise did help, but it only calmed down my mind for short periods of time. It’s wasn’t a long term fix, and it never got to the root of the problem. It never improved my ability to change my erratic thought processes in the first place.

Only one thing has ever gotten to the core of my incessant thinking, helped me to uproot the anxious branches of my mind, and plant a stronger tree: meditation.

Becoming a convert

It took me a long time to become a meditation convert. Years, actually. Your journey will look different than my own.

I spent countless hours reading lots of books and resources, and I also tried several meditation apps until I stumbled upon Headspace.

Headspace, for those of you who are not familiar, is the work of Andy Puddicombe. Trained as a Buddhist monk, Puddicombe uses his gentle voice to calmly guide listeners through various meditation techniques. Love or hate his soporific presentation style (I love it), Puddicombe knows what he is talking about — and the app is designed in a way to help meditators develop a daily meditation practice as easily as possible. With guided and unguided meditation options, and meditation packs for addressing specific areas of one’s life, Headspace is likely to have something for everyone. There are lots of meditation apps to start with, but I stuck with Headspace because of its versatility and ease of use.

Like it is with learning any subject, the more I learned about meditation through using the Headspace app, the more proficient I became in noticing my thoughts and directing my mental energy. And the better I got at soothing my mind, accepting my thoughts, and redirecting my energy, the more I wanted to meditate. It was a positive feedback loop. Good habits have a way of helping a person attract more and more benefits for a person that they eventually become part of a daily routine. After a while, not doing the habit feels as strange as it once did to actually do the habit the first few times.

Eventually, I began to notice the benefits of meditation in my life. I completed tasks faster than I ever had before because I could focus for longer and longer periods of time. In a world of constant distraction, I discovered that I could more easily redirect my attention back to something after being interrupted. Most important, my anxiety started to decrease. Rather than losing time and energy being obsessed with things over which I had no control, I started to simply accept my thoughts and move on.

It has to become a habit

I should point out, I only noticed the massive benefits of meditation once I made it first a weekly habit — then, after building up enough discipline, a daily habit.

Meditation needs to become as commonplace and automatic as brushing your teeth. We are taught that to be hygienic, and to make others want to spend time around us, we must brush our teeth twice daily. If not, an unsightly yellow film builds up on them. This is a terrific way to scare people away and cause cavities and gum disease.

When I stop meditating, I feel a film building up on my mind. Unlike hygiene for the body, there are no visual consequences of not meditating — and I think this is why it is easy to not do it. With no yellowing mind, there is no social accountability factors if I don’t meditate. I think this is why Western society does not view good mental health as important as visual indicators of health and success. I know that it is up to me to make meditation part of my life.

Meditation builds the foundation

Photo by Brina Blum on Unsplash

Think of meditation like building a house. Without a strong foundation the structure will surely give way over time. The floor will tilt and the walls will sag until, with enough added pressure, the house will eventually come crumbling down.

The mind works the same way. Without proper care, an overanxious mind is like a balloon filled with too much air. You may fool others for a long time that you are carrying along just fine, but add a little bit more air pressure, just a tiny amount — and the balloon will burst.

Meditation builds the foundation for the mind. Other tools used to strengthen the mind are important, but meditation reaches deep down and optimizes the core functioning of the brain. A home builder could use his tools to install strong and secure window panes, carefully crafted blinds and beautiful shutters with painstaking detail. You could then spend hours selecting and applying the perfect paint color for your new front door, but what good is it if the windows and the door end up on the floor of your fallen-down, shoddily built home?

Meditation may not help you become less anxious like it did for me. But I know it can help you acknowledge and begin to accept whatever difficult emotions you are feeling. Others won’t see the inner work that you do on yourself. But you will — and that’s what really matters.

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