I think I learned the word anxiety, in its form as a pathology, when I was in high school. Somewhere deep down, I knew it was exactly what I was battling. But I couldn’t say anything about it. The South Asian community, like many others, doesn’t discuss issues regarding mental health. Intentionally or not, the message I consistently received from elders in my community amounted to:
“Life is tough. It was way tougher for your parents than it is for you. They struggled in India; battled poverty, hunger, and lack of resources. They made it to America against all odds so your life would be easy. Your life IS easy by comparison. Work hard. Do what you are supposed to do. There is nothing to complain about. You will be fine.”
MY ANXIETY STARTED WHEN I WAS YOUNG
I think I have always had anxiety. Even now, in my early thirties, I can remember what panic attacks felt like as a child. I remember my heart pounding so badly every time I had to speak or perform in public (the latter of which was fairly regularly, as I played violin and piano). I would close my eyes and try to calm down before going on stage. My nice concert clothes would be drenched in a cold sweat, I would be trembling, and felt like passing out.
One of the reasons I wanted to quit music altogether was because I desperately wanted to avoid feeling, what I now know was, anxiety.
It continued as I got older. I would experience anxiety during my math homework or before math tests. I would be crippled with terror when anyone – I mean ANYONE – said they needed to talk to me. If you needed to talk to me it could only mean one of a few things: you were going to break up with me or stop being my friend (peers), or I was in huge trouble (adults). Once I was in college, every time I was home on a break and had to return to school, I would literally vomit from anxiety and beg my parents to let me stay home. I think that is when they finally acknowledged that what I was experiencing wasn’t some run of the mill nervousness that I could just “get over.”
LEARNING TO MANAGE
Anxiety is something I still contend with today. Sometimes my anxiety manifests in self-doubt, telling me I am incompetent at my job or that I will probably fail at what I’m about to try doing. Or that I’m forgetting something important, that I’ve definitely missed a deadline, or that a mistake I made is going to blow up in my face. Sometimes it presents itself as paranoia, telling me that in a text message notification or email notification from a coworker, my boss, or a friend I haven’t spoken to in a while --- they’re going to reprimand me or give me bad news. Sometimes my anxiety leads to pessimism, it tells me that things won’t work out the way I plan, or that my husband and mother-in-law are secretly mad at me… the list goes on.
There’s good news, though. Really good news! Those panic attacks I described to you? The cold sweats, near-fainting episodes, the vomiting… Those are all gone! My anxiety now is far tamer. I haven’t eliminated it, but I can manage it. I’m in a place where I fully believe in myself and my ability to continue to reduce its frequency, intensity, and duration.
I know I can do it. I know YOU can do it. And I’d love to help you get there.
In a word, my transformation is thanks to meditation.
Before I talk about meditation, I want to acknowledge that there are many ways to cope with anxiety that are valuable and impactful. “Self-care” has become a buzzword in recent times, but engaging in practices to care for yourself is absolutely essential, and can be invaluable in managing stress and anxiety.
Your physical self-care can have the power to affect your state of mind for better or for worse. Ensuring that you have a fairly regular sleep schedule and eating schedule is important. Healthy diet modifications and regular physical activity can reduce your stress levels. Investing time in relationships and connections with those who bring positivity into your life can be so beneficial to your mental health.
Many of us are feeling the effects of being socially disconnected during the course of the pandemic, so it is especially important that we find creative ways to maintain our social self-care. This might be watching a tv show or having a glass of wine with your besties over Facetime. It could be setting aside one night a week to make sure that you’re still spending quality time with family that you are quarantined with, who, like you, may be caught up in the strain of working from home. It could even be sending snail mail or postcards back and forth to someone in your life! I don’t know about you, but my mailbox is usually filled with coupons and junk mail from the cable company – a handwritten letter from a friend would be a welcome change!
For more information on ways to manage stress and anxiety, head to verywellmind: 5 Self-Care Practices for Every Area of Your Life. This link gives you self-care specifics, but their website on the whole is a treasure trove of valuable information on mental health and well-being.
I’ve personally taken medication for anxiety in the past, under the supervision of different (wonderful) therapists who have talked me through some of my negative core beliefs and helped me gain more perspective on some of the unhealthy thought patterns my brain naturally falls into. Therapy is a powerful tool, and I am a strong proponent of it for anyone who is able and willing. Other tools that can be helpful in managing anxiety include yoga, exercise, diet and lifestyle modifications, aromatherapy, and journaling. I have talked to so many women who use one or a combination of the aforementioned techniques, including meditation, with great success.
MEDITATION AS A WAY FORWARD
Anxiety makes you feel like you have no control, and I wanted to be able to find something that I personally could do to control it. I kept hearing that I was the boss and the one in control, but I never felt like I was. Meditation changed that for me. Anxiety is still a visitor from time to time, but it knows that it’s in my house, and that it is not welcome. It knows I can kick it out.
If you’re new to the world of meditation, the thought of it can feel overwhelming, so I want to give you small things you can do to begin to tune into yourself and reclaim your mind.
MEDITATION PRACTICE #1 | First, BREATHE.
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes notice after hours of being occupied with something, that I haven’t really been breathing. Even as I write this, I realized that I haven’t taken a good deep breath in a while. My tendency to is to constantly be taking sporadic shallow breaths. Making a concerted effort to start breathing more deeply on a regular basis will make a world of difference. More oxygen in your system will reduce headaches and stress and begin to naturally make you feel more calm and at ease from moment to moment.
If it’s challenging for you to keep tabs on this moment to moment, no worries. Start by setting aside two times a day, morning and evening, for a deep breathing session. You can do this on your own. I recommend downloading an app to begin your meditation journey. I personally use an app called Calm, but there are several options available (Headspace, Aura, 10% Happier, just to name a few). Pictured below is a tool within Calm called the breathe bubble, that really helped me as I began my breathing practice. It’s a simple and relaxing guide to help you time your in and out breaths, as well as how long to hold in between.
For more information on how deep breathing helps reduce the human stress response, head here: Relaxation Techniques | Breath Control Helps Quell Errant Stress Response
MEDITATION PRACTICE #2 | Try GUIDED MEDITATION.
Once you’ve gotten into a comfortable routine breathing practice, I encourage you to move into guided meditation. Particularly for those new to meditation, and those who find comfort in structure (me!), guided meditations are extremely helpful. When I was first starting out, I felt out of my element with meditation. I didn’t know exactly what to do – just… sit there? Guided meditation takes out all the doubts and questions. It is extremely relaxing, first and foremost, and having the guidance of an expert allows you to learn the steps of the meditative process. Guided meditation can vary greatly. Sessions can guide you in the steps to becoming more mindful and focused on what is happening in your body. This is what I find to be most helpful to managing anxiety. Guided sessions can also be focused on a particular skill you might want support in improving: managing pain, emotional regulation, improving productivity, etc.
Many people begin with guided meditation, and once they feel comfortable with the process of bringing themselves into a meditative state, opt to continue developing their practice independently. I’ve been meditating for nearly two years now, but continue to use guided meditation, because I still find it to be most effective for me. The choice is yours!
MEDITATION PRACTICE #3 | Go to SLEEP.
I’ve talked about how critical your breathing is, and how it’s something you may not even notice you’re not doing adequately as you go about your day. Another critical piece to managing your anxiety is improving the quality of your sleep. When you face the obstacles life brings, facing them with not enough oxygen and not enough rest is a recipe for disaster. These are two areas of life that we can begin to transform with relatively little effort, that will in turn have a profound positive impact on our well-being.
I fall asleep each night to a guided sleep meditation from Calm. I experience a lot of physical joint and muscle pain related to a chronic condition I have (which also contributes to stress and anxiety I experience), and the sleep meditations that focus on body scanning and release of muscle tension are invaluable.
If you’re committed to the journey of improving your sleep hygiene, or you’re reading this and thinking about how restful sleep is something you haven’t gotten in years, I want to direct you to the book Say Goodnight to Insomnia, by Dr. Gregg D. Jacobs. My husband and I read this book together in December 2019, and began Dr. Jacobs’ six week program at the start of 2020. My husband suffered from what you would think of as more traditional insomnia, while I was struggling with tossing and turning and very restless sleep. We are both big on research and data, so the fact that Dr. Jacobs’ was an NIH funded behavioral sleep medicine specialist at Harvard Medical School with decades of clinical research and practice under his belt meant a lot to us. His program transformed us. With improved sleep, we’ve both seen a massive reduction in our respective manifestations of anxiety.
Meditation can be as much or as little as you’d like it to be. It is a body of science on its own with immeasurable benefits to well-being. When I began my practice, I started with deep breathing, and then moved on to guided and sleep meditations (which I still do faithfully).
I know that while many of us find anecdotal evidence to be powerful, many of us also value research and literature proving the benefits and power of a practice. I actually belong to the latter category. For my friends who also identify as such, and who want to learn more before they begin their practice, I recommend the book Waking Up by Sam Harris. Harris started out as a skeptic about the power of meditation, but his book allows us to understand meditation as a rational practice that is actually substantiated by neuroscience and psychology. His work sold me on exploring meditation, and watching the most crippling manifestations of my panic attacks slowly vanish as I implemented meditation into my routine ultimately changed my life in a way I never thought possible.
I believe it can do the same for you.
Shameem is an early childhood educator in DFW. Teaching is her absolute favorite thing to do. When she isn’t busy creating resources for her classroom (and slowly building her new Teachers Pay Teachers store), she enjoys reading, hand-lettering, drawing, doing crossword puzzles, singing and playing ukulele, and playing video games with her husband. She is always eager to learn new things! She is passionate about fighting for improvements in the American educational system, and will never shy away from speaking up and calling out injustice where she sees it. She is incredibly grateful to have the community of women of The Affinity Blog, who challenge her thinking, and help her to grow and improve constantly.
You can find Shameem on Instagram @livefromfirstgrade & Twitter @meemiecat.