My Anxiety Toolbox - Meditation and Mindfulness

My panic attacks started again this week; it made me realise that I haven’t been looking after myself recently.

Mine stem from a specific event, but I know many people who suffer from anxiety attacks for no apparent reason. I’m sure this makes life even harder in some ways, as they don't know when, or why, it will take hold. For me, it starts with a warming in my stomach, which rises up my body, squeezing my chest until I struggle to catch my breath. My hearing is reduced; my vision is delayed; I feel outside of my body and incredibly hot. And then the tears come. Sometimes, this is accompanied by big, heaving sobs as I struggle to catch my breath. Other times, I can’t find my voice at all. Panic attacks are scary and the last place you want to be is in public when they happen, but, unfortunately, that’s often where they strike. Thankfully, although I can’t stop them from happening, I do know how to relieve them, and when to spot the signs.

Being ‘manic-productive’ - a vicious circle

I now realise I am more likely to experience an attack when I am feeling overworked, as I have been recently. I’m sure lots of you can relate: you’re up against a deadline, feeling super productive, smashing one job after another. Fellow anxiety sufferers might recognise the slight mania that can often come with anxiety, the kind that makes you super productive and tricks us into feeling really good about completing tasks, especially if the rewards are high. This is essentially adrenaline coursing through our bodies - it can be pretty addictive!

The problem is, running on adrenaline for too long puts our bodies under stress. Whilst we’re built to cope with some stress, prolonged exposure can have a really negative effect on us both physically and mentally. But in this busy world, that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? The good news is, if you can’t cut the pressure out from your life, then there are positive ways to give your body and mind a break so that you don’t burn out. When I got to this stage of feeling stressed and overworked, I knew I needed to come off the adrenaline and back onto the mindfulness and meditation.  

What is meditation and how can it help with stress?

Here’s the great thing about meditation: absolutely anyone can do it! Whether you’re a busy mum, a frazzled student or feeling under pressure at work, meditation is the perfect way to switch off from a busy day, as it brings your adrenaline and heart rate down in a healthy way.

But what’s the ‘right’ way to meditate? Well, there’s no definitive answer, as many people have their own preferred methods. However, I’ve spent a long time learning about meditation, from my yoga teacher training, various courses and from reading LOTS of books on the subject. From this, I’ve managed to find what really works for me, so I’m going to share it with you guys!  

Firstly - and this is a common misconception - meditating is not about sitting there with a brain completely empty of thoughts, feelings or emotions. If something enters your mind, you haven’t ‘failed.’  It is the act of trying to clear your mind that is important - the more you try, the stronger your ability will be. Think of it as like exercising a muscle - it gets easier every time.

Finding calm in our breath

So, how do you try and clear your mind? Start by closing your eyes. Take in a nice deep breath, as you exhale you think about your body relaxing. Take in another deep breath, exhale, and relax a bit more. But wait, just as you think you’ve got the hang of this meditation, a thought pops into your head, then another: I wonder what I should have for lunch?...I fancy avocado, but will I need to go shopping?...I hate it when the ‘ripe and ready’ ones aren't actually ripe...first world problems eh?

That’s ok! Instead of going on that journey, keep working that muscle, take another deep breath in and relax again as you exhale. Every time you realise your mind is going on an adventure, you simply notice and go back to your deep, relaxed breathing. Every time you repeat this process, you are getting stronger and more in control of your mind. Start off with just a couple of minutes, every day if possible. Meditation is best practiced somewhere where you can sit (or lie) undisturbed, ideally somewhere comfy where you feel safe. Set a timer and start with just a few minutes and build it up. You will notice the difference pretty quickly!

Mindfulness - an anxiety tool

Mindfulness is slightly different to mediation, in that it can be done on the go and in almost any situation. This makes it a great tool for those unexpected moments of panic and anxiety. Mindfulness works by helping us to focus our senses on one thing, making everything else (anxious/negative thoughts) fade away.  

The first mindfulness exercise I was taught was the raisin exercise. First, you look at the raisin: notice the varying colours, peaks and grooves in the skin, the size and shape. Is it symmetrical? How heavy is it? Roll it between your fingers. Is it soft or hard? Then, lift it up to smell it: does it smell sweet? Does it remind you of anything?  Lastly, pop in in your mouth, slowly explore the textures and finally bite into it. How does it Taste? By eventually swallowing the raisin, how do you feel? Is that like any other raisin you have ever eaten?

Using all of these senses, slowing right down and doing things with real purpose and concentration helps to calm us and bring us back into the moment. It relieves us of our ‘mind adventures’, dwelling on possible outcomes or reliving past experiences where you wish you’d done something differently.  

This nifty trick isn’t exclusive to raisins! You can try it out with so many everyday things: pausing to watch your teabag steep, feeling the sun on your face, watching the birds fly in the sky. This will really help you tune into your senses and out of those negative thoughts. While practicing mindfulness each day helps to reduce the severity of anxiety and panic attacks, it’s also handy to know these techniques if these negative feelings do strike unexpectedly. Remember, concentrate on something in your field of vision, focusing also on your deep breaths, and feel yourself relax as you exhale.

Have you tried meditation or mindfulness before? What techniques work for you? Let me know in the comments!

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