Anxiety and Meditation

By Tom Sutherland, MA, LPC, NCC

I often bring up meditation to clients as a technique to help with anxiety management. Only a small percentage, though, report giving it a good shot, and fewer still practice it with any regularity. I’m guilty of this, myself. But for my clients (as well as myself) who have practiced it and stuck with it, all report it being of some help.

One reason meditation isn’t very appealing to clients seems to be the idea of daily, or at least frequent, practice. Combining this with our desire for immediate gratification – well, it’s not hard to see how this could be a barrier to giving it much of a try. Some also don’t see how it could be helpful, and I think meditation may have a kind of mystical aura about it that puts others off.

When I ask clients what they know about it, they often say they don’t really know or it’s about clearing one’s mind. I tell them if you can find a way to clear your mind for any significant length of time, to please teach me how to do that! I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but it’s momentary.

Meditation – at least the form that was taught to me, isn’t about clearing the mind, but about increasing control over one’s attention. It’s attention skillbuilding. This is relevant to anxiety management because of how anxiety works.

How often do you worry – I mean seriously worry – about an alien invasion of our planet? A few of us do, for sure. But it’s probably safe to say that for most of us we typically only think of it when seeing a movie about it. Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about this possibility. Consequently, most of us don’t worry about it.

This is how anxiety works. It’s difficult to be anxious about something we aren’t thinking about. Anxious thoughts demand our attention. So, if we can improve our ability to control our attention, it becomes easier to move it away from anxious thoughts that aren’t worth our time or are unhelpful.

Of course, some anxious thoughts are actually helpful. They put pressure on us to pay our bills, take care of ourselves or others, meet deadlines, study for our next test, and so forth. But anxiety over things we have no control over or problems we can’t do anything about is pointless discomfort, and in extreme amounts can impair our functioning. It also can take our attention away from situations we do have some control over, and problems we can actually solve.

This is where attention skill-building through meditation can help. If you want to give meditation a try there are plenty of videos available with a simple YouTube or Google search, as well as mobile device applications. Some sources provide instruction in a particular method or guided practice, while others offer meditative music or sounds. Of course, there are books on Meditation and Mindfulness as well, and there are classes available. One client took a Yoga class that also employed meditation. I’ll outline the method I teach clients just because it makes sense to do so in a blog on this topic. But if you’re interested in meditation, spend some time finding a method that appeals most to
you.

One Simple Method
Step 1: Sit in an upright position so that your chest and stomach can easily expand and contract as you breathe. Close your eyes and conjure a vision of an object or even a simple scene, like the shoreline of a lake, or a patch of woods. Keep it simple. This image will function as an anchor for your attention.

Step 2: Begin breathing deeply, but not so much as to make you feel uncomfortable or breathless. No straining here. Over the next few minutes, you may find your breath slowing naturally as your body relaxes more. Just keep it comfortable. Don’t run out of breath!

Step 3: Focus your attention on your anchor image. It may be easy at first, but sooner or later thoughts will intrude and attempt to distract you. They may be unpleasant, pleasant, or neutral, but it will happen. As soon as you are aware that your attention has been pulled away from your anchor, just say to yourself, “That’s a distraction. I’m returning to my anchor,” and move your attention back to your image.

In a nutshell, that’s it. It’s a simple process but important things are going on. Whenever you find your attention diverted by intrusive thoughts, that allows you to practice recognition and awareness of distraction, and you’ll get better and faster at it. Those distractions also give you the practice of refocusing your attention – removing it from the intrusive thought and bringing it back to your anchor. This process is important because this is where you build your ability to improve control over your attention.

In some meditation sessions you’ll experience more intrusive thoughts, others fewer. Both are okay and normal. Don’t judge yourself for a session where you are distracted more easily or often. It’s part of how this works. I recommend to clients to avoid lengthy meditation sessions when they begin practicing, no more than five minutes once or twice a day. If you stick with it you’ll get better at it. Eventually, you may want to add more time but I’d still recommend doing no more than you want to. Otherwise, it will just become a chore and you’ll likely give it up. Even five minutes a few times a week is better than none at all.

As you develop more control over your attention, moving it away from pointless anxious thoughts will become easier. You’ll be able to focus more on problems and situations you can actually do something about, and which are more worth your time.

Author’s note: Tom Sutherland is a counselor and therapist at Oakland Psychological Clinic in Livonia. His primary scope of practice includes anxiety and depressive disorders, and grief. He works with individuals 18 and over and is currently seeing clients through telehealth services. The clinic phone number is 734-522-0280.

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