Stress, anxiety, and their antidote
When I was a freshman in college, I experienced panic attacks. They seemingly came out of nowhere—my heart pounded, my vision narrowed, and I felt as if I was losing control. When it first happened, I thought for sure I was going crazy or having a heart attack. When I went home for Thanksgiving my mother brought me to see a psychiatrist who recommended Valium, which was widely prescribed in those days. It worked—but I experienced a lot of anxiety during those years. I also saw a therapist, who was helpful too.
This was in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when treatment for these conditions was relatively untested. Today, we have a better understanding of anxiety disorder and we have effective medical and behavioral treatments for them. Each year about 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety conditions that range from what I experienced—panic disorder and include generalized anxiety, chronic worry, and social anxiety. These conditions have strong genetic loading, biological components, as well psychological and social elements.
By the time I graduated from college, I was still struggling with anxiety but I had learned how to cope with it better. However, I wanted to learn how to manage anxiety without taking medication. In the early 1970’s, I started jogging, which was relatively new at the time. I found that long runs were great at reducing my anxiety! I continued running for the next 35 years.
In 1974, I became interested in what was then a relatively new idea, “stress management”, which included breathing and meditation practices. I started the practice of Aikido, a Japanese martial art that focused on the mind-body connection. Through that practice, I learned meditation, which I have been practicing for the last 40 years.
Today, these methods, popularized by a psychologist and meditator, Jon Kabat-Zinn, are referred to as “Mindfulness”. They have been found to help reduce anxiety, improve concentration and wellbeing. While they have been used for centuries in Eastern societies, they are becoming increasingly well known in the West.
But what is this all about? Our central nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” response which is the biological mechanism for responding to external threats. It works well! But for some of us, it works too well. In anxiety conditions, this mechanism, which enabled us to fight off or run from wild animals in our hunter-gatherer history, won’t turn off.
This response can be activated by mere thoughts. Fears about the future or dwelling on negative events in the past can trigger this reaction. Mindfulness meditation teaches practitioners how to shift attention away from these thoughts and come back to this present moment. It teaches us how to develop greater awareness of ourselves and to experience sensation and thought without judgment or evaluation.
There are many roads to coming home to the present. Yoga, tai chi, martial arts, meditation, sensory awareness, prayer, and simple walking with awareness can help us experience ourselves in a unique and fresh way. These activities can also trigger what Herbert Benson M.D. called the “relaxation response”, which causes the release of the fight or flight response, the experience of slow breathing, muscle relaxation, and calmness.
Mindfulness practices are easy to learn—they are simple and straightforward. Indeed, there are many apps for your device that can help individuals start and maintain a mindfulness discipline. The challenge for most adults is establishing a consistent habit.
Practice being mindful
- Sit in a quiet place, with your back straight, close your eyes and simply watch your breath go in and out. Notice the physical sensation of the breath. When thoughts arise, as they will, note that you are thinking and go back to watching your breath. Do this simple practice for even 5 minutes and you will notice that your mind slows down and you feel calmer and clearer.
The good news—It’s possible to learn how to live more comfortably in our stress filled world!
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