How meditation helped me get a handle on compulsive thoughts

“You can hide ‘neath your covers / And study your pain”
 — Bruce Springsteen, Thunder Road

Having driven my car from Pennsylvania to California, here I was sitting in the bleachers of a small theater in Los Angeles, taking my first improv class with the storied Upright Citizens Brigade. I had made it! The dream I had — of spending the summer exploring my interests — was finally coming to fruition. And yet, as I sat with my classmates while our instructor shared yet another nugget of his (boundless) improv wisdom, rather than focusing on him, my attention was 100% trained on — my little pinky.

You see, at some point in the previous weeks, I noticed that when I angled my wrist in a certain way, and tried to bring my pinky closer to my other fingers, it trembled. Fear surging through my body, struck with panic, my mind raced around until it latched on to a startling conclusion: my trembling pinky is a sign of a neurological disorder. I must have MS! Or Parkinson’s.

This routine, of feeling that something in my body was amiss and pegging it on one ailment or another, had repeated itself many times prior, and continued to in the years that followed. Be it gum disease, a heart condition, diabetes, an STD, restless leg syndrome, you name it — if I could find a pretext for it, I found a way to worry about it. Gorgeous sunny days spent in a state of panic. Conversations with friends or family where my body was physically present but my mind locked in an intense medical self-investigation. And when I got the all-clear from a medical professional (as I did from a neurologist for my pinky): an intense sense of calm. Hallelujah! I’m okay! And, inevitably, in the days that followed: the surfacing of a new fear.

With the patient ear of a mentor, and a therapist skilled in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, over the years I found a way to make sense of this two-step I danced. I came to understand how investigating these illnesses (damn you Google & WebMD!) fed my fears, rather than diminished them. How, often, my compulsive thoughts were themselves symptoms of other— completely unrelated — unresolved issues in my life. Such as a work assignment that intimidated me. Or how I was going to stay afloat financially while working as a freelancer. In addition to helping me make sense of my habits, my mentors also gave me some tools to help me to avoid falling into the trap I was so good at laying for myself. One such tool was meditation.

Now I knew that meditation generally helped manage stress. And I had felt some of its benefits in the (sporadic) practice I had developed. But it was in developing a daily practice over a couple of years that I’ve come to know how to relates to getting a handle on my compulsive thoughts.

First, meditation gave me a better shock-absorber. Ever driven down a bumpy road in an SUV? Pretty smooth right? Coffee in one hand, drumming the steering wheel to a good beat with the other, life is good. Now have you ever driven down a similar road in a sports car? The coffee quickly turns into a Frappuccino. Hands are white-knuckled just to keep your car moving in a straight line. Just like a sports car has more tightly wound shocks (for better handling at high speeds), my mind and body too were tightly wound (for better freak-outs). Any external stimulus (such as an errant thought about a disease I might have) and I had little capacity to deal with it. It instantly jumped into crisis mode.

Meditation afforded me the ability to recognize the feelings that such thoughts elicit and, rather than react to them when they came up (by say, freaking out, Googling symptoms, booking a doctor’s appointment, or (often) all three!), I learned to stay with them. Funnily enough, as I did, the feeling had a way of dissipating. Like putting a sugar cube in water.

Second, by helping me get better in dealing with scary thoughts and emotions, meditation gave me a greater capacity to look squarely at uncomfortable questions in my life — questions I artfully swept under the rug, but that in practice lurked under the surface and “acted out” by triggering my compulsive thoughts. Dreading an upcoming work assignment? What part of it was dreadful to me? Fearful of how I am going to work for myself and pay my rent? Well, what is my financial strategy? Maybe some financial planning is in order after all. And wouldn’t you know it — the more I’ve looked into such questions — the fewer freak-outs I’ve had.

I sometimes see meditation portrayed — in Instagram snapshots and glossy check-out-line magazines — as this wonderful luxury to indulge in, preferably while outfitted in Lululemon™ and surrounded by floating votive candles. As if it were some sort of chocolate truffle, to be savored when convenient. Perhaps that’s true for some, and for me there is little glamour in the practice of meditation. I’ve recognized that this “pattern” of compulsive thoughts is deeply ingrained in me and — without proper care and feeding — will resurface. Much like an alcoholic is one for life — no matter how many years they’ve been sober — I am forever really good at having compulsive thoughts. And much like a drug for depression can help restore a chemical imbalance in the brain, for me meditation helps break the connection between my thoughts — the emotions they elicit — and the pre-programmed actions that ultimately get me stuck. It’s a prescription. Knowing full well that if I stop my practice I’ll be “off my meds” and, while I’ll have added a few free minutes to my day, sooner or later I’ll be right back where I started.

Though I do sometimes light a candle.

Questions? Comments? Tips and tricks that have worked for you? Hit me up below!

Oh and how did the improv course go? I learned that improv is really, really hard. But Jason Alexander (George Costanza from Seinfeld) happened to be in the audience for our class show! A character who I suspect knows a thing or two about compulsive thinking.