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Can you meditate with anxiety?

The first time I practiced meditation, I kept my eyes open the entire time.

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Looking around the room, I quickly realized that this made me an outlier. I also realized that I was not supposed to be looking around the room. I met the teacher’s eyes—the only other ones that were open—and looked away immediately, embarrassed I’d been caught. I focused on my feet instead and tried to keep myself from tapping my toes to the music playing in my head. There is always music in my head, always a song stuck in my mind. It gives my life a soundtrack, and it was something I assumed happened to everybody until I learned that it didn’t. I once told this to my college roommate, who thought I was exaggerating. She used to question me on it randomly, certain that one day she’d catch me without an answer. "What song?” she’d ask when I walked in the door. I always had an answer. For some people, the instruction to clear their mind is inviting, even relaxing. For those who stay awake at night chasing threads of thoughts down long and winding paths, it can be threatening and overwhelming. When you can’t find the “off” switch for your brain, the constant chatter becomes almost comforting.

Like the 18 percent of the U.S. adult population that struggles with anxiety (and the many more who experience universal nagging doubts), I have trouble letting go of moments of self-criticism or unease—especially in a room full of strangers after being given explicit instructions to do just that. While the numbers tell me that I am in good company, those statistics are hard to remember when everyone around me appears deeply restful and at ease. Quentin Vennie, a meditation instructor diagnosed with severe generalized anxiety and panic disorder, agrees that meditating with anxiety can be difficult at first, calling an idle mind “anxiety’s playground.” He explains that for that reason, people with anxiety often avoid meditation, at least at first. “We like to stay busy. That way, we won't have any thoughts or fears of anxiety creeping in.” I immediately think of the nervous energy that I feel if I still have downtime after completing my to-do list. My usual next step is to rush to commit myself to more obligations, replenishing the list as quickly as possible. “The first time [people with anxiety] hear the suggestion to be still, it can be scary,” agrees Beth Summerl, a mindfulness instructor. “Meditation itself can become the anxiety trigger.” And it was. At least it was for me, at first. During that first class, I felt like I was doing everything wrong.

“Focus on your spine,” our guide instructed, and I realized I had been slumping in the chair. “Loosen the muscles in your face,” he continued, and my cheeks felt strangely underworked. “Clear your mind,” he said, and a nervous tingle went through my newly-straightened spine. Meditation, I concluded, as I peeked at the girl sitting next to me in lotus position with a resting smile on her face, was not for me. The next week, I purposefully took on too many work commitments and sent an apologetic text message to my instructor telling him that I wouldn’t be able to make it because I had to work. It was true but calculated. I came up with new excuses until I finally ran out of them and forced myself to practice meditation again. This time, I channeled my favorite image during moments of stress: a duck appearing to glide effortlessly on the water, while its feet paddle furiously below. But even if I could fake my way through being at peace during a class, I couldn’t lie to myself. I was anything but relaxed. As soon as my brain was free from focusing on my surroundings, it filled up with precisely the thoughts that I didn’t want to think about. Class by class, though, I found myself holding onto those thoughts for shorter amounts of time. Frustrations and fears were there with one breath but floated away with the next. Like Vennie, the meditation instructor with anxiety, I discovered that I had more control than I initially thought and that meditation can be a great tool to battle anxiety when approached the right way. Instead of pushing away or hiding negative thoughts, I confronted them head-on and then let them disappear. I also discovered that meditation doesn’t have to be about finding an “off” switch at all. In fact, in some ways, it can be about achieving the opposite: being fully “on,” fully present, and fully engaged. These days, I meditate regularly, but I am unapologetic when a song floats into my mind while I am doing so. Sometimes, I even tap my toes.

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Like the 18 percent of the U.S. adult population that struggles with anxiety, I have trouble letting go of moments of self-criticism or unease—especially in a room full of strangers after being given explicit instructions to do just that.

Jessica Levy

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