The other day I noticed an advert on the London Underground for an herbal medicine. The advert said something like: 1 in 4 people suffer from anxiety. “Really? Only 1 in 4?” I thought. Anxiety is the number one identified reason people seek counselling. Like depression, anxiety can be an umbrella term for the many challenges a person is facing. Thus, it is highly simplistic to talk about in general terms but for the purposes of this article I have to do so.
My understanding is that everyone can/does experience anxiety to varying degrees as anxiety is one of our human emotions. Anxiety is a response to specific triggers for some people, i.e. how they perceive a partner to be behaving. Or a response to what would be common triggers for most of us, such as job loss or some other situation that threatens safety and stability.
Some psychoanalytic writers have seen anxiety to be experienced from our very first days as human beings when our primary needs (i.e. for food, comfort and attention) arise and are not satisfied quickly enough. Anxiety can certainly be relational and it can become a hard-wired response. All dimensions of anxiety can be sensitively worked with in therapy and through the therapeutic relationship itself.
Anxiety can be very physical with shortness of breath, palpitations, and restlessness; and/or it is experienced very much in the head with thoughts which can be quick, reactive and fearful. For some people, it is chronic; for others, very manageable. But it is not pleasant. Anxiety contracts us.
One tool that can really change anxious feelings is deep abdominal breathing. Rather than breathing up in the chest, you breathe in through the nose slowly to feel the belly inflate, and then slowly out through the nose allowing the belly to deflate. Breathing like this can quickly adjust the nervous system by switching on the parasympathetic response associated with rest, digestion and relaxation.
The best way to breathe like this and switch on the rest and digest mode is to lie on the floor in a safe, quiet space with the knees bent, heels under the knees and with the knees hip width apart. The head and spine are in a straight line and if needed, there is some support under the base of the head to tip the chin gently towards the throat, lengthening the back of the neck. In yoga, this is called ‘Constructive Rest Pose’ as it places the spine off load, allowing the pelvis and spine to align, and for the breath to deepen as the relaxation of the body begins.
If it is not possible to lie like this, then simply sit upright in a chair with the spine stacked and the feet on the floor, focusing on breathing into the belly as described.
If you can do this for a few minutes at first, building up to 20 minutes, and train your body to breathe more deeply into the abdomen rather than the upper chest, you have a simple tool to manage the symptoms and experience of anxiety.
Don’t expect magical immediate life transformation, thoughts to cease in this practice or be surprised if you feel like crying. Notice what you do experience. Depending on this, you may want to find someone to help you as such a practice can also throw up a lot that is/has being suppressed.
Anxiety can also interfere with breathing so that breathing through the nose does not feel easy or possible. Maybe the agitation and energy in the body mind system needs to be discharged through movement. Going to the gym, walking or whatever is possible to move the body, can help to clear the respiratory system. But it won’t remove the underlying challenges.
Meditation using mala beads
I have recently taken up a particular sitting meditation practice using ‘mala beads’ and a silent mantra. Mala beads are small wooden cedar beads, interspersed with a few glass beads, strung together and finished with a bead cluster and tassel. There are 108 beads on each string. With the eyes closed, the beads are held between two fingers and the thumb of one hand. The start is the first bead after the tassel. The fingers and thumb move along the string and a new bead is encountered. This focuses the mind on a specific small physical and tactile activity, along with the mental activity of mantra repetition. It is considered an active concentration technique.
In my practice this morning I decided I would chant the mantra once for each bead I came across. My mind was busy with day-to-day thoughts and concerns when I started and it took some beads before I was fully aware of what I was doing. I noticed I hadn’t finished the short mantra yet I had the next bead in my fingers. I decided I would slow it down and breathe in/out with the mantra and the bead. Then I noticed that I had the next bead before I had finished a complete breath. Then I decided to breathe in with one mantra and bead and breathe out with another mantra and bead. This I could do but then I wanted to get to the end of the string!
This meditation has taught me a lot about my anxious mind and its energy. It is never with what is. It is constantly jumping ahead, finding new options. Energy has to go somewhere after all. Yet despite this, I felt myself gathered together, more peaceful or integrated on some level, whilst aware that I had moved around. These different parts of the self are there all the time. The part of me that managed to observe the process is the ‘observing mind’. This is what meditation or mindfulness really encourages us to connect with, or find. It does not mean that the other parts of us cease to exist. The observing mind can see that there is anxiety, some emotional turbulence; it can see and feel the body at the same time, ‘witness’ thoughts as well. That we can see these parts, know they are there, is significant. This is the complexity of human experience. With consistent practice and deeper concentration, some insight may come about what to do with it.
Whether lying in ‘Constructive Rest Pose’, sitting and breathing in a chair, using mala beads or moving the body, a mindful approach adds another layer of help. Noticing what is happening in the body, with breathing, and what thoughts are running through the mind, can really help to create an avenue or shift out of difficulty. If I notice my heart beginning to quicken, my breathing is shallow, I feel agitated and I notice what I am thinking about, then I can ask myself: is this thing I am thinking about a trigger for me? Is it stretching me or pushing me in a way that my body is letting me know is too far or too much? Can I find another way to be with this that is gentler and less stressful? Do I need to take action for myself or reach out and seek help?
Mindfulness is not easy. It is a practice in the sense that with repeated attempts and attention, it can be learnt. I believe it helps with life and living but it does not alter that there are difficulties to deal with. Pessimistically perhaps, I don’t believe pain can be avoided in our human lives.