Learning from Anxiety

IMG_0B1BF78381DB-1

I woke up this morning before the alarm. My jaw was clenched. My eyes felt wild and panicked, searching for something to fixate on. The back of my neck gripped onto itself. I knew I wouldn’t go back to sleep. My animals started to stir, reacting to my movement. Anxiety, dammit…. Damn IT! 

I’ve been practicing meditations for anxiety when I wasn’t anxious so I could be prepared the next time this happened. I have a list of interventions that I know with some certainty work to ratchet down the relentless grip of tension. Practice yoga … no coffee or sugar … let myself cry … meditate … take a walk …. listen to Gregorian chants… there are many solutions at my fingertips. There is no need to panic. But anxiety screams, “OMG… PANIC … PANNNNIIIIIICCCC!!! This will never end. Today will be HORRIBLE!”

I got out my 10% Happier app and pressed play on the “Before Getting out of Bed” meditation. It helped a little, but when I opened my eyes I could still feel the tension in my neck. I gave myself a little neck massage and it relaxed a bit. I had to get to the gym, so I went, and the anxiety ratcheted up again. I found myself hating my workout. I tried to talk myself down and stay in the moment while I worked through my reps, knowing that I needed the workout even if I was anxious. It was not pleasurable. I hated virtually every minute of it, but I did it.

On the way home, I was really uncomfortable. Instead of falling into the trap of blaming myself for my anxiety, I reminded myself that this was like a headache for me. It’s not because I’m overthinking. It’s not because I don’t trust God enough. It’s not the result of eating anything bad. I just have a headache, and, for me, the headache symptom is a relentless attack on my body by my anxiously-wired brain. Beating myself up only exacerbates the problem. And latching on to any of the crazy, hateful thoughts my brain is tempting me with is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Just let them go and do the next right thing.

IMG_2077

I got home, made myself some herbal tea and chose the Working with Anxiety meditation from my app. She had me focus on my feet – like really, really focus on my feet. Oh my, that felt comforting. Next we focused on my hands, and the anxiety was loosening its grip. Then we moved to my stomach and on to my breathing. I followed her instructions, and like butter oozing off a sweet potato, my anxiety slipped away.

By the time I opened my eyes my anxiety level which was definitely at defcon 8 when I started was probably at a baby 3. Wow! I’m still at a 3 right now as I sip my herbal tea, and it could still go back up again as the day goes on. But the more I just let it be and take care of myself, the less it seems to impact my mood. I’ll just keep it simple today.

 

 

Changing Self-Talk Through Engaging With It

Image-1-1

This morning I chose a meditation by George Mumford in my 10% Happier app. This app has “courses” led by great meditation teachers to lead you deeper into practice and to provide tips on how to deal with the stress of daily living. George has become my favorite of all the teachers on this app. I wish I could take him home and let his gentle voice guide me through all of life’s problems.

90% of it is learning and practicing. Only 10%  is performance. So all of the pre-thinking you do, all of the habit patterns you have, happen before the performance – that’s why you can’t separate the performance from now.

~~ George Mumford, meditation teacher who taught Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant how to meditate.

He makes a point that our negative self-talk is the biggest hindrance to performing. If I am afraid to do something, or I think I can’t, it is going to impact my ability to complete the task. He says we can’t just ignore the voice because if we power through and ignore it during practice, it will be literally screaming at us during the performance. And it always impacts our confidence. The alternative is to listen to the voice, investigate whether or not it is true and create a new narrative from the truth. Only in this way do we help mold self-talk that is supportive of reality and helps build confidence. But you have to practice to know what comes up for you.

Image-1-2

I am not very detail-oriented. It has impacted my work in the past. I used to tell myself that I was not good at managing details, and I would forget all kinds of things. I’d find myself getting frustrated with any complex task because I’d try to keep it all in my head, and my head assured me I was going to fail. I had an insightful boss who had the foresight to send me to a class where I learned a system to organize work and prioritize. It was the beginning of my learning how to manage details with “tools” instead of my abilities. Success helped build my confidence that I could overcome that shortcoming.

In my new job as a Project Manager, I’m starting to get feedback on what I bring to the table. Almost everyone says I am really organized. I usually laugh out loud because that is the farthest thing from the truth. My self-talk could easily sabotage my abilities in that area. But, when that little voice in my head tells me there are too many details, and I’ll never remember all this sh*t, another more reasonable voice reminds that my toolkit has the appropriate tools to create a path through the chaos. My shoulders relax, my mind quits spinning, and I can set myself to organizing the work. And every time I do it, that voice gets louder and more coherent than the other one. But without practice and years of learning new tools and techniques, I would have never built that kind of confidence in myself.

What is your self-talk telling you? Can you teach it a new, more informed message? What can you learn and practice that would help you step up to a higher level of performance? 

 

The Indiscriminate Taskmaster

52674482808__616C5FA1-24FE-49D1-9722-3C69BF3BFB52

This morning I am enjoying downtown St. Joe in its post-summer quietness with a mocha (decaf), the book Quiet Your Mind by John Selby and my sweet Ashok. A chipmunk just raced across the road which perked her up as I dove into Shelby’s thoughts on how judgement impacts others and, more specifically, our own minds.

The first premise he asserts is that we all judge. We see a dark alley, and we judge that it is not safe. We see our unclean house, and our critical minds asserts that we are messy. A friend says that they are $10K in debt on their credit card as they charge up a new dress, and we think to ourselves that they need to be more financially savvy. And we tell a grieving friend that they need to trust God. Judgements keep us safe, destroy our peace of mind and confidence and ruin relationships. I first need to accept that I judge and stop judging myself about that.

I have been judged harshly by others about my lifestyle. People have judged me and condemned me for my divorces. Some people even judge me for feeling and expressing my opinions. In a really odd turn of events, others judge me for working on my problems. It is painful to be judged. And, lately, as I’ve been sinking into my meditation practice, I have become aware of how much I judge.

Meditation is not about stopping your thoughts. Experienced meditators say there is no way to do that. Our brain thinks. That’s what it does. Our body breathes. We can’t stop it from breathing either. The goal of meditation is to ground yourself and just notice what goes on in your brain without following the thoughts down the rabbit hole. I’m going to follow them down the rabbit hole inevitably when one interests me, and then I judge myself for doing it. I breathe, and I judge myself for trying to control the breath instead of just watching it flow. “STOP doing that, I tell myself,” as the meditation guide says to be gentle with yourself and don’t judge yourself for going down the rabbit hole.

My mind is a never-ending stream of thoughts and judgements and fears that are at once profound and a meaningless waste of time. One of my yoga teachers said that the mind that tells us to eat the apple pie is the same mind that berates us after we do. We are not our thoughts, and our thoughts are not excellent guides. I would love to study more about what creates our thoughts, and maybe that is something I will research later. Meditation sometimes relaxes me, but it is sometimes extremely frustrating. Following my thoughts can keep me constantly contradicted.

My thoughts are often the reflection of criticisms I’ve received in the past. It’s as if the very words that cut me to the bone get stuck in a recording that plays itself back to me throughout my day.  I feel confident that I was productive and creative, and I hear a disapproving parent telling me that “every time you think you screw up.” I feel healthy after a great run, and a long-ago passer-by says “hey fat-ass!” Luckily, therapy and healthy friends have recorded complimentary messages that counteract my everyday failures as well. When my house is a mess, I hear a good friend’s comment that “your house is your home. You can keep it how you like it.” When I snap off at a colleague, I hear a therapist’s message “No one is perfect. That’s why we have apologies.” The brain, it seems, is an indiscriminate recorder that plays its messages with no particular motive. In fact, sometimes I get two or three contradictory messages at once that can paralyze and confuse me

I’m playing with not reacting to my thoughts in meditation, and I’m finding that I’m playing with not reacting to my thoughts in real life. I’m becoming more aware of the content of my thoughts and my gut reaction to them. No wonder I was being jerked around so much by the thoughts in my head. Without awareness, they are a brutal taskmaster.

Accepting my Brokenness

1909748_121084237769_4467322_n

I miss my house in Memphis. That place was so healing to me. The garden was too big for me to manage. The bedroom had no door. The bathroom only had a stand-up shower, so I couldn’t take baths for years. And the sunroom in the back wasn’t very well insulated which caused it to be cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. But that place was fertile ground for my growth as a person.

Be still and know that I am God. That scripture was scrawled across my empty yoga room wall at the front of the house. I’m sure the room was meant to be the living room, but I wanted the front room to be empty except for my spiritual space and those words that grounded and inspired me to stop trying to fix my life.

1909748_121084267769_3956904_n

I texted a friend of mine this weekend to see how she was doing. “Learning some things about being okay with my own brokenness, and the ability to just sit with that. To love myself with all my brokenness, and accept my humanity,” she texted back. Ahhhh, I thought. Accepting our brokenness … what a concept. Be still and know that I am God.

So much of my life I’ve been driven to fix things … numb my pain … say I’m sorry when I did nothing wrong  … eat to ease loneliness … find a man to fill the hole in my heart where compassion belongs. I didn’t understand that brokenness is the birthplace of wholeness.

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 5.44.12 AM

I thought that my heart was a vase that when shattered needed to be superglued to resemble its original form. That was so shortsighted. Isn’t it much more beautiful to accept the broken pieces as they are and create a mosaic. Choosing the most beautiful chunks, we create a stepping stone or a hanging ornament which reflects the sunshine. A mosaic carries the beauty of the original amid the amplified emotion of the breaking. Acceptance of my brokenness … be still and know that I am God.

A man died of alcoholism in that house. That’s how it came to me. I felt that I was a part of its healing just as it was part of mine. That house was empty of furnishings but full of love. Women laughed and cried and sat in their brokenness in that empty space. I painted the walls in many colors and opened my heart to the garden’s lushness. I cried tears of joy and sobbed with great sorrow. I accepted its many flaws without trying to fix them, and the garden endured my lack of experience with landscaping. The space felt huge, and my heart healed.

1935314_130568107769_6910505_n

How do we accept our brokenness? It’s so difficult to sit with pain and sorrow and guilt until it changes us. It’s much easier to try to fix it or numb out. The easier path is not the transformative one. I don’t have answers on how to accept your brokenness, but I know how I accept mine.

Be still and know that I am God.

~~Psalm 46:10

 

 

Savoring My Life

fullsizeoutput_1d46

As my meditation journey continues, I’m shocked at how differently I’m experiencing the world around me. In fact, I should say that I’m actually experiencing the world around me. As mindful as I tried to be in the past, the meditation takes it to a whole new level.

I took an online course Friday night on how meditation changes the brain. A neuroscientist on Yoga International created this course that explained the parts of the brain, what they control and how meditation impacts them. It actually shrinks the size of the amygdala, the primary area that governs emotional reactions to danger. After being in an abusive relationship years ago, I learned that this almond-shaped brain part was responsible for my PTSD-like reactions. It was not only reacting to the moment but pulling up data about danger from my entire life. Meditation grows other parts of the brain, helps other areas improve their work and shrinks the fight-or-flight engines.

Joy is becoming more and more of a daily state. I’m still getting frustrated and angry and tired at times, but the level of intensity is much reduced. I’m also getting lots of insights on how to handle my emotions but also my work in a much more focused way. It’s hard to describe, but I feel really grounded and present. And I’m craving meditation time.

I just finished a course on the 10% Happier app using meditation to create emotional agility. The teacher, Oren Sofer, said that he likes to think that being agile with your emotions makes you the most powerful person in the room. I would have to agree. As a rule, humans either react to their emotions or repress them. Either way, the very important information they provide becomes useless or distorted just when you need them.

One of the meditations led me through an exercise where I brought up a very emotional situation in my mind. I felt the fear and anger rise in me as if the event was happening right before me all over again. He asked me to drop the story and just pay attention to what was going on in my body. I realized that the edges of the emotion felt somewhat jagged, and it sort of set up house around my chest and heart area. Then he asked me to go inside and get a sense of what I was really feeling. It was sort of amazing. I wasn’t feeling fear and anger so much as I was feeling unloveable and devalued. I WAS the little girl who was berated and ignored. I was at once sad, afraid and confused. The emotion was not only big but it was ancient. My reaction in that moment with a person I barely knew was the same emotion that I’ve known forever. It was familiar, huge and debilitating.

After sitting in that feeling and breathing into it, it began to change. And, all of a sudden, it disappeared. This took place in about 12 minutes. Oren says that when we actually pay attention to an emotion without judging it and reacting to it, it will do one of four things – increase, decrease, change or disappear. Apparently, emotion just want to be felt. It is our information center. It teaches us, and it reminds us of our needs.

This morning I made my coffee and was considering journaling while I drank it. But I realized that I wanted to just take in the moment with my coffee and my animals. Not only was I craving my morning caffeine, but I was craving the savoring of the moment. What I’m finding that as I practice meditation, I become more mindful of everything. I don’t worry so much about the future nor do I ruminate about my past. I am present. My senses are electrified. My appreciation of daily events is becoming awe. As with my coffee, I’m beginning to savor my life.