What to do when you’re anxious Now

Meditation is a great way to decrease symptoms of stress and anxiety.  These symptoms often begin “in the head” when the mind starts to dwell on regrets about the past or worries about the future, so it makes sense that learning to stay in the present will help.  Meditation is a long-term solution, which leads to a calmer presence and less physical and emotional reactivity.  I recommend it to anyone who will listen.

The trouble is, I am often suggesting this long-term solution to people with a more immediate problem.  Studies show that regular meditation can reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety within a few weeks, but in the meantime they are still popping up during work or social interactions.  Besides taking time to work, formal meditation also isn’t a practical way to reduce anxiety in real-life situations.  We can’t just sit down and meditate for 20 minutes whenever we feel stressed or overwhelmed.  That’s usually frowned upon in business meetings!

There are ways to use meditation techniques for faster results, however.  These tools are simple and portable, and can even be done around others without attracting unwanted attention.  The two meditations below are based on the principles of mindfulness, which quickly guide us back to the present moment.  In that space, worries and regrets are recognized for what they are: simply thoughts, not reality.  These “quick fixes” will be most effective when used as part of a formal meditation practice.  Try the longer version first, to become familiar with the technique, then use the quick fix as needed during daily life.

Practice 1: Find Solid Ground.  Helps with physical symptoms of anxiety or stress.

Why this works: The mind reacts to uncomfortable physical symptoms of anxiety by dissociating or detaching from the reality of the present moment.  This practice re-establishes the mind-body connection, firmly grounding us in the present.

Longer Practice: Find a comfortable seat in a chair and gently close your eyes.  Follow your breath for a few rounds, then allow your focus to shift to tactile sensations in your feet.  Become aware of sensation in the soles of the feet as they rest on the ground.  Conversely, notice where the solid ground is rising up to meet your feet.  Let go of any thoughts or stories, and gently direct the mind back to the sensation in your feet whenever you become distracted.  Pay particular attention to feelings of solidity and support, becoming absorbed in the groundedness of your feet on the earth.  Rest here in sensation for 10 – 20 minutes.

Quick Fix: Start by inhaling deeply, then exhaling slowly through your nose.  Focus awareness on the sensation of your feet touching the ground.  Feel the heels, the balls of the feet, and each toe resting on the earth.  Recognize the support of solid ground rising up to hold you, feeling the strength of your connection to the earth.

Practice 2: See What’s Real.  Helps with feeling overwhelmed, frazzled or caught in repetitive worries.

Why this works: When we are stuck in worries, we are distracted from the present moment.  This practice reconnects us with the physical world and returns the focus to what’s real.

Longer Practice:  Sit comfortably with your eyes open.  Take a few breaths, focusing on the sensation of air moving through the nostrils.  Allow your eyes to rest on a prominent object in your visual field, such as a tree, if outdoors, or a piece of furniture.  Scan the object slowly, noting details of color, texture and movement.  Describe it fully in your mind until this feels complete, then move to another object, scanning it in the same way. Slowly take in everything you see, moving from object to object.  Return your attention to naming what you see whenever your mind becomes distracted.  Notice what’s around you in this way for 10 – 20 minutes.

Quick Fix: Inhale deeply, and exhale slowly through the nose.  Then open awareness to what you see around you.  Choose one object of focus, describing its color, texture, and every detail with complete attention.  Whatever you see, allow it to completely fill your vision, attentive only to what you take in with your eyes.  Feel yourself present in this setting, aware of everything around you.

With regular meditation, it’s easier to notice when we are ungrounded, or distracted by thoughts.  Then we can use these techniques to reconnect before symptoms of anxiety or stress become overwhelming.  Eventually we won’t need to rely on quick fixes, because they will be a normal way of staying present for life.

Clear out space

The season is changing.  Finally, after a long winter and chilly spring we are seeing the sunshine again!  The earth is beginning to renew itself all around us.  The sun is shining, the animals are frisky, the flowers are blooming and delicate shoots of new plants are peeking up from the soil.  This is all possible because Mother Nature does a lot of advance preparation.  In the fall, the trees lose old leaves, making way for new ones come spring.  Now the animals shed their winter coats preparing for warmer weather.  Everywhere there is a clearing away of what’s no longer needed to make room for new growth.

As modern humans, we aren’t tied to the cycles of nature very much anymore.  But, some of us may have seasonal rituals, such as spring cleaning, or moving heavy clothes to the back of the closet.  Externally, we give attention to removing what we no longer need.  But what about our internal space?  Our minds are full of patterns, habits and coping methods that have developed over many years.  At one time, they were necessary, but our lives and circumstances change constantly.  What was once helpful may become obsolete, or even harmful.

Consider your internal landscape for a moment.  Are there any habits or thought patterns that are no longer serving you?  Have you felt blocked from taking positive steps in your life?  Like the earth, we may need to purposefully clear away the old, dead leaves to make room for new shoots to emerge.  Psychotherapy is the best way to become aware of outdated patterns, and to begin to create new, positive changes.  But we can shift our internal energy to create the right environment for new growth.

Studies have shown that we can create powerful new connections in the brain during meditation.  The technique below uses a combination of intention and mantra meditation, an ancient practice that calms the body and quiets the mind.  The object of focus during this type of meditation is a mantra, which is simply a meaningful word or phrase.

Meditation to Clear Space for New Growth

1.  Set aside 10 to 20 minutes for meditation practice.  First thing in the morning or last thing at night are traditional, but the most important thing is to create a routine so meditation becomes a daily habit.

2.  Find a quiet place where you’re unlikely to be disturbed, and take a comfortable seat.  You may sit in a chair or cross-legged on the floor, but try to maintain an alert posture to stay focused.  You may choose to set a timer, so you know when you’ve completed your meditation.

3.  Start by setting an intention.  Use your own words to express what you’d like to achieve.  Some examples are: “I clear away what no longer serves me.”  “I am open to new growth.”  “I release the old and welcome the new.”  Ideally, the phrase should be simple and easy to repeat.

4.  Close your eyes gently, and focus your attention on your breath.  Breathe in and out normally through your nose.  Notice the sensation of air flowing in and out of your nostrils, calmly releasing any thoughts, just feeling the breath for several moments.

5.  Now silently repeat your mantra along with your breath.  You may find it most comfortable to think part of your mantra on the inhale, finishing it on the exhale, or repeat the entire phrase with each part of the breath.  Do what feels relaxed and comfortable in your mind.

6.  Continue to repeat your mantra while sitting comfortably and breathing quietly until your time is up.  When your mind becomes distracted, know that it is natural and expected.  Release the thoughts without judgment and gently refocus on your mantra and your breath.  As many times as necessary.

7.  When your time is up, breathe quietly for a few more moments, noticing how you feel, perhaps giving thanks for this time to take care of yourself.

Change is difficult for most of us.  Be kind to yourself and recognize that old habits are deeply ingrained.  But, by offering your intention to change, you are acknowledging a willingness to accept new growth.  Watch for it in all areas of your life.  It may be subtle at first, before suddenly springing forth in the space you’ve prepared for it.