Is Meditation for the Anxious?

Empty your mind. 

Abandon your story. 

Allow your thoughts to go by like leaves in a breeze. 

Observe them as clouds floating by in the sky. 

Like flames destroying my home… Everyone I ever loved walking away from me, one by one.” With anxiety it can be scary to sit with one’s own mind. What if I start catastrophizing? Just sitting and trying not to think could feel like a sort of torture.  

And despite the struggle, it still may be worth trying to find meditation that suits you. Research has found amazing differences in the brains of people who are expert meditators. The emotional parts of the brain are different in very good ways. It provides amazing physical health benefits, too. Could 13 minutes make that much difference? Apparently it can.

Barriers to meditation

The current “wellness market”

When people talk about meditation, the term “mindfulness” often comes up. One thing at a time, surrendered to the moment. Being completely with my senses and the environment. That’s great. But anxiety has us mulling over and regretting the past. And it has us fearing the future. In CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) many of the cognitive distortions we identify are about these problematic thoughts. Meditation has us practice that this moment is truly all we have influence over.

The whole “wellness market” has become quite a force. Boujee folks spend a fortune on tunics and tonics. They find the trendy meditation supplies, decor and expensive retreats. To sit on the floor with a candle and breathe deeply does not have to overdraw my bank account.

The impact of old religious stuff

Many times I’ve heard that prayer is talking to God and meditation is listening to God. What if we’re not on speaking terms? Maybe I don’t have a concept of a particular divine at all.

Organized religion of all types has exacted all manner of trauma. As a result, people take giant steps away from anything that reminds them of that. Many people didn’t grow up with any religion at all. Many of their parents became turned off to the whole idea of any sort of spirituality. More and more in our society we are trying to find ways to have that connected feeling and the health benefits without relying on the traditional religions.

My introduction to meditation

When it comes to meditation I did not have a bad experience associated with religion. At 17, I learned how to meditate from the Sisters of Charity. (I was basically a hang-around with various nuns from 16-20, but that’s another story.) They taught me transcendental meditation. You choose a mantra and do breathing. The sisters offered to teach me and did not force anything. The first time I heard the term “social justice” was with these sisters. They were Catholic nuns supporting women’s rights, including abortion rights. The Pope threatened them with excommunication but they pressed on anyway.

Hail Mary!

For me praying the rosary was very similar to transcendental meditation. There’s a built in mantra and eventually I wasn’t thinking at all. I was not actually pondering the mysteries of the rosary but I was peacefully tuned in. Beads for meditation is not just a Catholic invention. There is something cool about having a tactile element. Even bead-making might have a nice meditative quality if you like that sort of thing.

Anne Lamott has written a book called Help, Thanks, Wow. I think this is a great way to approach prayer and meditation. Help, thanks and wow are universal human experiences. Recommended Reading Call it spiritual or not, it’s what we go through. It’s why I love to be out by a lake or trees, desert, mountain, tall grasses, the sky, the moon, the stars. 

Can’t stay focused on my own

Guided meditation is a good option for a lot of people. Turn on an app or a YouTube video or an old school cd or tape and just follow along. Someone else leads you along the journey. There are a myriad of options.

Certainly it will be important to sample things. The point is to get a break from the usual state. It distracts me if I notice myself annoyed by a particular voice. I can either work on freeing myself from my judgmental thoughts or just keep sampling.  

Grateful grounding

Meditation, to me, is not limited to sitting still. I find great benefit in walking meditation which automatically involves grounding. To notice the things around you and not judge. Simply hear, see, smell, taste or touch. Feeling a connection with a Higher Power is a bonus, but it really is not required to get something from meditation.

Doing an activity you love that captures your attention in the moment can be an alternative meditation. Have you ever felt, “in the zone” or in a “flow state?” It can be playing a sport, making art, gardening, fishing or hanging out with your dog. For me now it’s riding my motorcycle.

First summer with Elvira

When I get on my Harley my attention needs to be on what is surrounding me. Can’t worry too much about anything that is more than 15 seconds out of sight. Life depends upon it. Riding is also a great way to remember there is a lot I cannot control. The weather, the potholes and the traffic just are. Equally important is taking full responsibility of the bits I do have control over. I ride 100% sober. When I ride I need to be fully awake. ATGATT-all the gear all the time. Keeping my bike in good repair is good self-care ultimately.

And it’s so easy for me to be in the “thanks” mode when I ride. I find so much to be grateful about. I notice the sky and the air and the growl of my beautiful Milwaukee Eight engine. (IYKYK as they say.) People will say motorcycles are dangerous but staying on the couch would have been much more hazardous for me.

Not pressure but presence

Letting go of thinking there’s a right way to do it will be important. Meditation, for me, feels a lot like sitting or walking quietly with someone I’m in love with. There is a sense of ease. It’s not about pressure but about presence. It is being in a mindset of acceptance. The power is in just living and breathing and experiencing the moment. I am not asking for anything or trying to accomplish anything. There aren’t words. Nothing needs to be done. Just be. There is only that place and time. Dogs I’ve known have been great at this.

And it won’t last long. I will go back to wondering what’s for dinner. Where I am going to stay the night? How many more miles I am gonna ride today? Do those clouds mean it’s going to rain? Here’s the thing, none of that thinking is wrong.

Somehow everything is gonna be alright

If you’re full of anxiety you might have to work harder to find meditation that suits you. It may not be the sitting in the lotus position, all alone in your head. Ponder the following questions. What has you feeling like you are in the right place? What gives you that sense that somehow everything is gonna be alright? Do more of that. If you haven’t found it yet, I encourage you to persist. Try stuff out. It’s never too late. All things considered, it will be well worth the effort.

Opting Out of the Holidays

It’s okay to be less than excited about the holidays.

The holidays may be harder because:

  • I’m a people pleaser. I get caught up in what my friends and family expect of me.
  • I shop compulsively and go into credit card debt this time of year.
  • I tend to binge eat when stressed or when certain social situations get to me.
  • The holidays remind me that some family and friends have died and I miss them.
  • I am single and it seems like everyone is coupled up.
  • I am far from my friends and family.
  • Political divides make being around my family really chaotic.
  • I’m in recovery from alcohol and drugs and it feels especially impossible to avoid risky situations this time of year.
  • It’s winter and I already have depression this time of year.
  • My family includes people who abused and neglected me.
  • My family disrespects my life choices and who I am.

Navigating the Holiday Season

I will be honest with myself.

It is entirely possible that opting out of the holidays is a good plan for you, but be honest with yourself about if that will leave you feeling too lonely. If that is the case, for most of us it is best to plan wisely and create new holiday rituals and traditions, on our own terms.

I decide.

It is your job to maintain your self respect. You will find some of these choices easy. There are obvious things you know deep in your gut that are just not good for you. Sit with yourself and be as realistic as possible. The holidays can unravel people. Lisa Najavits who wrote Seeking Safety calls it Avoiding Avoidable Suffering. It is a very important coping skill.

There will be gray areas to consider. Maybe you have been invited by people who are truly nice to you but their Christmas music, loud children and certain food at their event makes it just not your jam. You can decide to abide the scene for a little while and then go home. You can show them that you value seeing them but not torture yourself for hours. Alternately, you can decline that invitation but suggest a different way to spend time with them. Not everything needs to be an all or nothing. You decide.

If you are hesitant and unsure when you get invited to something, try this. “I’m gonna have to get back to you on that.” This is a phrase that can be used all year long but is especially useful during the holidays.

I can let others be disappointed.

You aren’t responsible for other people’s feelings. Other people might be disappointed about your choices. You are the one who needs to live with how things impact you. For example, there might be some people who have abused and mistreated you. They don’t deserve your time.

There may be things that you get invited to do that hold zero interest or happen when you are already exhausted. It is okay to say, “No.” You can say it clearly but politely and without excuse. And it is a great idea to reach out to your support people before and after these assertive moves. Get a pep talk and a debriefing session. This stuff can be really hard.

I actually like some festive things.

For some of us, it is about having established close friends who have become our chosen family. Creating new traditions can go a long way in helping us cope with what can be the roughest time of the year. For example, I love having a gingerbread house building party with my friends every year. It gets incredibly silly and we have even done it as an online party during the pandemic.

And if I am entirely honest with myself, I love to watch old movies like The Bishop’s Wife with Loretta Young, Cary Grant and David Niven.

Sometimes there are even shows I will agree to go to, with silly gay dancing and singing for the holidays or women singing medieval music at the cathedral. (Seattle’s Medieval Women’s Choir-Music of Mirth! December 4th at St. James.)

Remember, if you ever need a helping hand, it’s at the end of your arm, as you get older, remember you have another hand: The first is to help yourself, the second is to help others.

Audrey Hepburn

I can be of service.

Get out of your own head. Ask yourself, how you could be of service to another person? It increases self-esteem and strengthens relationships. It could be donating your money or time to a cause or it could be more personal. Your friends and family and co-workers are likely struggling with all this stress just as you are. Check in with them more often during this season. Offer your time to help them out. You are not the only one who feels overtired or too reflective.

I can access support.

Have safety plans. You might have overwhelmed feelings. Talk about how you feel. Reach out for support. If not with your closest people, use a hotline if you need to. And obviously I am fond of the idea of therapy as a possible support.

If you are in recovery then you may already be getting to support meetings. Even if you haven’t gone for a while, meetings are still there. And meetings go on around the clock during the holidays.

I will get through this.

And remember, this too shall pass. It will all be over and we will get a new year full of all kinds of possibilities.

Keeping a Journal

Questions and Answers

Q-“Why would I keep a journal? My life isn’t that interesting.” 

A-Your life is probably more interesting than you think. (And I am not suggesting that it has to be published.) It’s for you and nobody else. Keeping a journal is a way to support yourself through all the racing thoughts and worries you have. It can be a pep talk for yourself when you need it. Maybe you are worried about a job interview or a confrontation with a boss or a loved one with whom you have been having a misunderstanding.

Keeping a journal helps you prepare for difficult situations or make decisions. 

When you journal you can work on being your own best friend. Are you  your own ally or your worst critic ever? You can catch yourself  being self-critical and talk back to those thoughts.  

Q-“What if someone reads it?” 

A-The question of what if someone reads it is an important one. 

If you have had someone read your journal you know that can feel like a terrible violation. While I prefer to handwrite my journals, a lot of people use their devices and in that case, create a strong password and change it often perhaps. Unless your journal stalker is a hacker, you are probably okay. Other than that it is about finding a safe hiding spot. And if you have someone in your life that can’t be trusted, there’s a relationship you really need to reassess. 

Q-“I kept a diary as a kid, but wouldn’t it be silly now?”

A-More and more we are realizing that things we did as kids were actually pretty great. Adults now try very hard to find creative ways to cope with life and a journal is a great coping strategy. It isn’t any sillier than endlessly feeling overwhelmed about decisions you should make and how you have created this very serious life for yourself.

Q-“I’m bad at it because I don’t write in it every day.”

How often you write in your journal is entirely up to you. Part of why it is so great is that it isn’t graded and there’s not one way to do it. You get to decide what sort of paper and pen, what style you will write in, whether you write or type. It’s all up to you.

Q-“I don’t have time to write in a journal.”

A-Like everything else this is a matter of finding the time. If you decide it has value to keep a journal, you will find time. 

Some people journal at the beginning of the day.  It may help them organize their thoughts and uplift their mood. It can be part of their morning ritual. Some people take time for quiet meditation and prayer, maybe a cup of tea and some daily inspirational readings, even some yoga if that’s your thing. 

Some people prefer the end of the day to journal. It can be a nice recap to the day. It can be a time for venting about stress that happened. It might be a good way to just unload some things onto the paper so that your brain more easily let you go to sleep. 

Suggestions on What to Write

Automatic writing Just let your stream-of-consciousness flow. Set a 5 minute timer and don’t stop to think about punctuation or what you’ll write. Just keep it flowing.

Letters that you don’t send

Letter to someone with whom you have unfinished business. They might be angry letters or sad letters. Let all the words you would never really say out loud spill out onto the paper.

Love letter to someone you are stuck on. 

Letter to your Higher Power, God/Goddess or Higher Self.

Letter from your Higher Power, God/Goddess or Higher Self.

Letter to deceased loved ones.

Letter from your deceased loved ones. 

Letter to your Inner Child.

Letter to your future self.

Letter from your future self. There is a website that people use for this, too.

Gratitude journal.

Purposely list what you are grateful for. Nothing is too trivial. This is a way you will offset some of the negative emotions and heavy focus you may be giving to how so many things are really hard in your life right now.

Dream Journal.

You might decide to keep a dream journal by your bed and record what you remember right as you wake up. If you wake up foggy it’s okay to just write fragments. You might decide to draw little pictures instead. 

Words of Advice from a Long Time Journal Keeper

There’s a time to journal and a time to do grounding instead.

If journaling is increasing your sense of upset and feeling overwhelmed it is best to get grounded in the present moment again and not be writing about the past or the future.

Be careful reading through old journals. 

It can be very interesting to go back and see what you were thinking at a particular time in your life. What people don’t realize sometimes however is how much grief might be elicited by doing this. I am not saying you cannot re-read your journals but be very aware that strong feelings may surface, so only do so with support.

Do Not Store Old Journals Under Your Bed. 

I know this sounds like a crazy, old witch telling you a superstition, but it’s true. (And I am a crazy, old witch, so I should know.) There is probably a rule in feng shui about this, too, but I can’t really speak to this. I just know that when I had journals under my bed I had the worst insomnia ever and when I thought to move them to a secure location out of my room I was once again able to sleep restfully.

Journaling is not enough sometimes. 

I am one of the most ridiculous DIY people you will ever meet. I cut my own hair before the pandemic, okay? Well, I have kept a journal for about 40 years now. It has helped a lot, but sometimes I just needed more help. You may really need a friend or family member to talk to or a professional for therapy. And writing in your journal before seeking help from someone else might actually improve that situation as well because you will have gathered and organized your thoughts ahead of time. As I say often, it’s hard to do but there is no shame in reaching out for support.

Demystify The Shadow

Before the first humans figured out how to make a fire to have a hot meal, I am pretty sure they got scared by their own shadows. Being taken by surprise is always a bit alarming, even when it turns out it was just us. 

In therapy we strive to get free from symptoms and self-defeating patterns that keep us from living a good life.

One way to approach this is to do what is called Shadow Work. The first reference to this comes from the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, who lived from 1875-1961. Jung was one of the first to use the term, “subconscious,” to describe the inner workings of the mind. Jung talked about The Shadow as the dark side of the personality. The idea was that beneath our conscious awareness lie rejected sides of our personality. This underworld includes thoughts, memories, feelings, impulses and judgments that our psyche has decided we need to hide, even from ourselves. 

Photo Credit: Frank McKenna

For 16 years I worked at an addiction treatment center for women that was called Residence XII. One of the founders was Marion Hutton-Schoen, who sang with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. She struggled with addiction,  found recovery and dedicated herself to create safe places for women to heal.

Marion’s approach had such a significant impact on my thinking and my work that I named my therapy practice Wise Woman Therapy.

Marion Hutton-Schoen studied Jung and developed the concept of working with The Addict and The Wise Woman. 

The Addict consists of thoughts, impulses and behaviors that are kept secret, like the rejected sides of The Shadow. Shedding light on these cravings, urges, schemes, lies, manipulations and other things that feed and maintain addiction is an important process. 

Women especially suffer from intense shame when they have alcohol or drug addictions. The common detrimental thinking is, “I keep doing these things and therefore I must just be a terrible person, awful mother etc.” It is critical to healing and recovery to start being honest. Calling out what The Addict is thinking and doing is an important part of this process. Knowing that these thoughts or substance-fueled mistakes are not your nature is critical. This doesn’t mean shying away from responsibility, it just means not staying stuck in the shame of it all.

                           The Addict is there but it is not who you really are.                                                                                   The Addict is the addiction itself.      
Who you are at your core is The Wise Woman.

Everyone, diagnosed with substance use disorder or not, has this undercurrent in some manner. Women in recovery from addiction quickly recognize that after the alcohol and drugs are removed, emotional sobriety is a lifetime of work.

The Work Of The Wise Woman

  • Learning and accepting that inside you there is a capacity to make positive changes.
  • Asking for and accepting help from safe people.
  • Finding new answers and trying new coping.
  • Gaining perspective to see the bigger picture and to be able include yourself in the equation.
  • Making decisions and good choices for yourself and the people you love.  

Important disclaimer here: I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I firmly believe that addiction is a bio-psycho-social-spiritual condition. This process addresses the psychological part. All the other areas will still need to be addressed as well. 

Address the Unmet Needs

Whether the issues are substance-related or behavioral/process addictions, the Addict side is trying to address needs that have been left neglected and unaddressed. The Addict finds solutions that do work on some level for a certain amount of time. Figuring out what needs have been addressed by the Addict and finding a Wise Woman approach is very powerful.

The new ways to cope do not satisfy the needs the same way and there will be some grieving over this transition. The Addict takes care of things in a more immediate way and then leaves a trail of regret, remorse and other negative consequences.

For example, anxiety around social situations might be solved by alcohol or other drugs. It is a human need to have social interactions.

The work then is to figure out how the Wise Woman finds social connection and a sense of belonging. This takes time and patience and a lot of support.

When someone is completely exhausted and yet cannot rest, alcohol and drugs solve that problem immediately.

The work then is to figure out how the Wise Woman self-soothes,  decompresses somehow and begins to set better boundaries and asks for help. She has to learn to sit with other people’s disappointment with her. She cannot be all things to all people anymore. She learns to ask for help and let other people step up. These are not small tasks. Letting other people do a bit more work is an investment in the family or the workplace or the friendship circle.

Photo credit: Helena Lopes

The Addict solves problems in the short run but leaves behind a world of wreckage. Women have described this as a vicious cycle and a merry-go-round from Hell. The Wise Woman finds new ways to cope that will be beneficial long term, building a life that is sustainable. 

I don’t choose to call this work Shadow Work for several reasons. The connotations are full of mystery and fear. We don’t need to create extra drama. Women seeking help are already scared. I don’t need to paint myself as a brilliant healer who can help free you from The Shadow. Facing our fears and figuring out our inner world can be scary. The work I do with women is not dangerous. It is literally just talking. Sometimes women I work with write things. Some women explore their inner world by drawing or painting something. It’s rather mundane actually. Although it is simple and mundane, it is not easy. The process of finding safe coping is important work and it does provide relief. People may feel dramatic shifts but we need not do them dramatically. It’s just really hard work that will change your life for the better. Well worth it.

But What About the Holidays?

Despite the many anxieties they may be enduring, the women I work with tend to be extreme planners. They are the women who manage to organize and juggle the schedules of an entire family or multiple projects at work.

You might feel like a mess, but you are running the world.

Like everything else about 2020, my old list of holiday planning tips has needed to be revised. Here’s what I have come up with so far.

Boundaries and Expectations

No matter what, our planning still revolves around setting boundaries and managing our expectations.

How I set boundaries this year will be different because literal boundaries are different because we are in the midst of a global pandemic, no matter what victories some people may be declaring right now. 

Usually this has been a discussion about psychological and emotional boundaries. This year things are much more literal. Keeping distance from others may be the best way to express our love and for them.

For anyone in recovery from addiction, we have always planned to avoid or manage very carefully the high risk situations involving people drinking or using drugs. 

Avoiding DUIs is even more critical since getting locked up now could involve more potential exposure to COVID-19.

Even if alcohol or drugs are not a problem for you, consider what stress level certain activities cause for you. It is okay to protect your emotional state and prioritize physical safety and sanity.

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” -Charles Darwin

Get Creative

With creativity, a strong plan and support. you will make it through even the 2020 holiday season. It may be that you will eat a piece of pie outside with your loved one and then say goodbye and plan to see them on video chat later. That’s okay.

Tip 1: Define your priorities and be proactive

Start your process by deciding what you want the holidays to be about and only let things in that honor what is most important. You can take some quiet time and journal. Talk it over with supportive people. If you live with other people, have a meeting to talk it over together and get everyone on the same page.

send out a pre-holiday message

Get ahead of the problem and inform important people how you plan to handle the holidays this year.  Let them know what your plans are. If your want to, invite them to join you in some activity or other.

Here’s my example of one thing I plan to do.

It has been my tradition for many years to throw a Gingerbread House Party.

Usually this time of year I am trying to figure out which design to use and whether we will be making multiple houses or one big one etc.  

This year I will host it as a virtual event. People are gonna be on their own to create something and show everyone what they can do without my years of experience.

They will need to measure and adjust the cream of tartar for the royal icing on their own. (it is the magic edible glue that cements the gingerbread pieces.}

Watching people struggle and rooting for them from a distance will still be fun. It will be like our own episode of Nailed It!

Tip 2: Gently decline invitations that do not fit your priorities

The biggest obstacle to this is usually the guilt that comes from feeling obligated. This year the “pandemic silver lining” is that avoiding groups of people is actually strongly recommended and may protect people from COVID-19. 

You might still struggle with the guilt. That’s okay. Setting these kind of boundaries might be really new to you. Process how you feel with a therapist or a friend.

Tip : Use the Sandwich Method

For high stress holiday occasions that you’ve decided to attend, plan for before, during and after. 

Before: Have an encouraging friend check in with you and give you a little pep talk before you go. If you work a 12-Step program, go to a meeting and/or talk with your sponsor. 

During: Drive there yourself or with someone who will go with you as an ally. Don’t get trapped. 

If you can bring an ally, have a game plan to support each other. Agree on a signal that means, “let’s get outta here.” 

Bring your own food and drink. This year’s pandemic situation lends itself to this. Going into stressful situations hungry is not a safe place anyway and one never knows what will be provided until you get there. 

Set a time limit. Making a “cameo appearance” might be enough. Remember your priorities and if you are there to see a particular person make spending time with them your goal. 

Be cool. In your interaction with difficult people remember that in the moment you can decide to let their words or actions, “roll off you like water off a duck” and know that you are going to process this afterwards as planned. 

Back up call: If you are going alone, have someone give you a check-in call after a little while there. People on first dates have used this tactic and it can be useful to then have a reason to go without telling them you are leaving because it is an awful party for you. 

After: Plan to check in with a supportive person to debrief  how it went. It might be with the same person who gave you the pep talk or it could be someone else. And just like before, if you work a 12-Step program a meeting after or talk with your sponsor might be really great. Knowing you are going to be talking it through will help as it is going on and probably you will sleep better for having processed a bit.

Self-soothing. Take some time for some self-soothing activity after what you just dealt with. Make sure to pick something you really like and not something self-destructive like alcohol or drugs, especially if they are not part of your priorities for what you want the holiday to be about. Some people love a relaxing bath and for others it may be a favorite show to watch or listen to music you really love, take a walk somewhere nice or have a favorite snack.