Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

Meditation as First Aid - A #MindfulPhD Post

The first time a therapist explained mindfulness to me, I'm pretty sure I laughed out loud, and not in the most kind way. Why, why on earth, would I want to sit still and listen to my thoughts? Even now, there are many moods and times of day where that sounds like absolute torture to me. Because of that, and my naturally stubborn disposition, I do not have a regular meditation practice (although I do have a fairly regular yoga practice, which is similar but not the same!) 

But I do have a whole arsenal of meditation, mindfulness, and breathwork techniques that I have used to live with my anxiety. I basically use meditation as "first aid" - I pull it out when I need it, I feel safer knowing that the techniques are easy to do, and easy to reach for. I am hoping to build meditation into more of an every day, or "preventative health" model, but for now, this is what I'm working with.

So if the idea of "sitting quietly to get to know your mind" terrifies you, read on for how I do it in a way that makes me feel safe, supported, and lessens my anxiety.

I have never "cleared my mind." I don't even often sit completely still while meditating. 

I for years used the "Headspace" app for my meditation, and I found many of the videos to be extremely helpful in challenging some of my worries and fears about meditation. The concept I return to again and again is that meditation is less about me "clearing" my mind or getting to a state of complete emptiness, and more of accepting my mind and what hangs out in there. Meditation and mindfulness are ways to get in touch with what I am thinking, what words I'm using to describe myself, or my work, or others, and how I feel - in my mind, in my emotions, in my body. 

When my anxiety kicks up, the last thing I want to do is sit down and meditate. But doing so usually helps.

My anxiety happens on a curve. Eustress is the 'good' kind of nerves - the buzz before a big test that helps you perform better, or the extra hit of adrenaline before the big game. I then follow a pretty steady climb from stress, to anxiety, to high anxiety, to a panic attack. Meditation is not a helpful tool (for me, could be different for you) for anything above a 6 or 7 on the anxiety scale (with 10 being a full panic attack.) But for lower levels, it successful can help me refocus and usually prevent me from moving up the anxiety ladder. 

When I'm above the "good stress" and before I hit the panic levels, meditation is very effective in re-centering me and usually can stop a full blown attack from happening. 

When I'm above the "good stress" and before I hit the panic levels, meditation is very effective in re-centering me and usually can stop a full blown attack from happening. 

Here's what I mean when I say "meditate": a combination of observing my thoughts and focusing on my breathing. 

Andy Puddicombe is the face behind the Headspace app, and I find his explanation of how meditation works when you're anxious to be particularly accurate to my experience. 

So, here's what I do, step by step:

  1. If I can, I move locations. Getting up, shaking my body out a bit, and resettling in a new space (even sitting on the floor of my office) signals to me that we are doing something different. 
  2. I sit in a comfortable position. There is no rule that you have to be sitting cross legged. I sometimes sit in a chair, other times on the floor on a blanket, or with my back resting against the wall. Laying down can work too, especially if the anxiety is very high, but if I'm more relaxed, laying down on the floor can lead to a nap. 
  3. I put on a mindful breathing meditation. I used to pay for the Headspace app subscription, which was great but expensive. I also have used Stop. Breathe, & Think, and sometimes I just go onto Youtube and search for "Mindful breathing" and click until I find someone whose voice doesn't annoy me. There are also usually mindful breathing tracks on Spotify or Google Music, if you're with your phone. I like having someone lead me through the meditation, because then I know how long it will be before I start, and I am less worried about "doing it right." 
  4. I go through the meditation, which often prompts me to pay attention to my breath, or literally say "inhale" to myself when I inhale, and "exhale" when I exhale. Sometimes I'm prompted to count my breaths. Other times I might be told to focus on how my body feels in the space- the pants against my leg, the sounds I can hear. The important part to remember is that I'm not trying to "stop thinking," or "clearing the mind." I'm just trying to focus on one specific thing. 
  5. When it finishes, I give myself a minute to "come back" to the real world, and make a quick note (mental, or in my bullet journal) how I feel. I often do not feel 100%, or even 60% better. So I keep checking in throughout the day -how do I feel an hour later? Before bed? Collecting this data proved to me that eventually, meditating when I start to feel anxious will calm me down, even if it isn't a "miracle cure." 40 or 50% less anxious at the end of a work session is still a huge accomplishment. 

More than reducing or eliminating it, meditation has helped me to "get to know" my anxiety. 

I am learning much more clearly about my anxiety since I've started to approach it with a curiosity, and knowing more about it helps me short-circuit it before it gets out of control. Before I started working with mindfulness, it was not uncommon for me to get a panic attack "out of nowhere" or "out of the blue." It would feel like I would be fine all day and then one little thing would happen and boom, I'm in the midst of a panic attack, or severe anxiety episode. But, being more aware of my anxiety has shown me that my anxiety experience is usually less like getting into a 140 degree sauna and instantly feeling uncomfortable and unsafe, and more like being in that sauna as the temperature slowly climbs, but doing my best to ignore the growing discomfort. 

I am getting better at realizing that if I've opened 15 tabs in a 25 minute pom, I am probably starting to feel a little anxious. Same goes for feeling my neck tense up, or making overly detailed to-do lists. These are all little signs that the anxiety is creeping up, signs that I wasn't aware of until I started to pay more attention to my body and my mind. I can intervene earlier because I know what the warning signs are, and this helps me keep the anxiety at a lower level. 

This did not happen overnight. It has been almost a decade since I was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and I still have bad days. But meditation has helped me to make those bad anxiety days less frequent, and less severe when they do happen. And I didn't have to turn into a super chill person to do it - I just had to do a little bit of practicing when it came to observing, and not controlling, my mind.