I remember the summer I read my first book by Thich Nhat Hanh.
I was house-sitting for a friend, who had it among her vast collection. I can’t even remember which book it was, but I do remember feeling enthralled at the peaceful and calm life it described.
After that, I read many more of his books. I was continuously drawn to the spiritual life he talked about and the meditation practices he shared in his books.
But here’s the thing: I never practiced the meditations.
I read and read, but never sat down to actually practice. Although I had the best intentions, I seemed to avoid meditation at all costs.
I came up with so many excuses. I felt too restless to sit still. I was afraid of silence. Even five minutes felt like forever to slow down. I didn’t know what to do while meditating. When I finally did sit down, my mind was a sea of endless thoughts and worries and suddenly a whole new set of body pains arose—sore back, shoulder pain, tight hips, legs, and feet falling asleep.
It wasn’t until later that I realized what was really keeping me from meditation.
Meditation is actually what woke me up to my anxiety. Through it, I realized that I have struggled with stress-related anxiety most of my adult life (well probably before, but maybe I didn’t know it).
I’m constantly over-thinking, replaying past experiences, and working through future fears over and over in my brain.
Not being able to fall asleep or waking up in the middle of the night used to be regular occurrences for me. Although I’ve gotten much better, I still have the occasional night where I wake up in a panic, throat constricted, and heart racing over a single thought or worry.
I’ve had moments where stress at work became so much that I broke down in tears in the office bathroom or got back to my desk so overwhelmed and shaky that I just didn’t even know how to begin to re-focus.
Social anxiety? I’ve been there too. I’ve avoided social situations just to spare myself the awkwardness and nervousness that would surely ensure upon meeting new people.
I came to meditation before I realized I had anxiety. But for many, meditation is prescribed as a natural way to reduce anxiety.
But what do we do when our anxiety is the thing actually keeping us from meditating in the first place?
I would not say I’m a perfect meditator now; I don’t think anybody ever can be. But after nine years, I can say that meditation is not something I make myself do because I should, but a time that I crave each day as an essential way to deal with anxiety and face the rest of my day calmly.
Here are nine strategies I’ve discovered over the years to help anxious people, like me, finally commit to a meditation practice:
1. Start with a short amount of time.
I used to think I needed to immediately start with 30 minutes of meditation, as if it wouldn’t be worth it to meditate if I didn’t do a “full” practice. I believed it just wouldn’t have the same effect. But that was simply untrue. In fact, even five minutes of daily meditation can change your life.
If you’re not used to sitting still for long periods of time though, the restlessness that comes with anxiety can make 300 seconds feel like 30 minutes, feel more like hell than calm medicine. Which is exactly the opposite of how we want to feel.
Instead, start with five minutes, slowly increasing over time to reach 30 minutes or more.
Be sure to set a timer, so you’re not worried whether your time has passed or not. But beware, you will evidently wonder at some point if your timer forgot to go off and be tempted to open your eyes to check. This usually happens to me about a minute before it is supposed to sound. Try to breathe through this point, go back to your meditation, and trust that your timer will sound when it’s supposed to.
2. Practice a few body movements before meditating.
These can be super basic! Here’s a simple routine to start with:
Lie on your back, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Raise your hips by pushing through your heels, and make small hip circles.
Lower your hips back down. Then inhale one leg up to your chest, and exhale it down. Repeat on each side a few times.
Come to a cross-legged position with your hands on your knees. Breathe. Then, get on all fours and do a few cat-cow movements. Inhale, arch forward, and open your chest. Then exhale, rounding your spine up and back.
Keeping on your hands and knees, rotate your spine as if you are drawing a circle with your chin, first to the right, then to the left. Inhale forward and exhale backward.
Finish with a few neck circles. Inhale when your head is down, and exhale when your head is back.
These moves always help me open up the parts of my body where I usually experience tension and pain while seated in meditation. Moreover, connecting the movements with my breath helps bring my focus to both my body and breath, calming my mind before I actually sit.
3. Find a comfortable position.
Meditation is traditionally practiced in a seated position, but there’s no need to feel like you must sit in order to meditate.
For years sitting while meditating was so uncomfortable that I would spend most of my meditation time thinking about all the pains in my body. I felt like I had to sit, because that’s what you are supposed to do.
At some point, however, I realized that worrying about my body pains wasn’t actually getting me anywhere, so I decided to lay down while meditating.
Laying down while meditating can sometimes mean you fall asleep instead. Try to stay alert—but if you do sleep, don’t beat yourself up. You probably needed it.
If you choose to sit. Sit in a comfortable position. This might be on a chair with your feet uncrossed or it might be on the floor. Depending on your flexibility, it may be uncomfortable to sit cross-legged on the floor, so use as many cushions under your seat as needed so that your knees are below your hips.
Whatever position you are in, try to keep your spine as straight as possible.
4. Hold the ring finger of one hand with the other hand.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the fingers are connected to meridians that run throughout the body. Each meridian is associated with a different emotion. Simply holding the fingers, can stimulate the meridian and release emotions from the body. The finger associated with anxiety is the ring finger.
Anxiety actually stems from surges of cortisol in the body triggered by the fight-or-flight response. Cortisol builds up in the body if it is not released. If you have anxiety and you try to sit still, these stored-up chemicals in the body can actually make you feel shaky and irritable.
Holding the ring finger for two-five minutes as a meditation itself or at the beginning of meditation can help release anxiety stored in the body and make it easier to meditate. As you hold your finger, inhale and bring to mind any worries or thoughts that come to your mind. Exhale, and imagine the worries and thoughts releasing from your finger into the earth below you.
I will sometimes even hold my ring finger in public situations that bring anxiety to help process this emotion when I am in the thick of things.
5. Scan your body.
With thoughts, worries, plans, and dreams flying through your head, it can be hard to settle the mind. If you have anxiety, it is so easy to get caught up in where your mind is taking you in the past or future. It is very difficult to focus on the present.
In order to bring the mind to the present moment, I find it helpful to start focusing on something else, like your body.
Start by bringing attention to each body part and notice any sensations you feel there. Then, imagine any tension releasing from that body part down into the earth beneath you. Start with your head, then your neck, shoulders, arms, chest, back, stomach, hips, legs, and feet.
If you ever find that your thoughts have dragged you away again, know it’s okay. Just bring your attention back to relaxing the last body part you remember focusing on.
I sometimes start my meditation like this or do a whole meditation in this style alone.
6. Try a simple breathing practice.
Many meditation practices instruct you to simply notice your inhale and exhale as it is. But for those of us with anxiety, it can be easy to let our thoughts distract us. Before we know it, our meditation time is done, but we don’t feel any calmer since we spent the whole time worrying.
If you have the same experience, try counting your breath—counting to give as you breath in and five as you breath out. Or get a little help from your hands. Place one hand on your belly, the other hand on your chest. Breath into your hands—inhaling, your hands rise; exhaling, your hands fall.
7. Experiment with different types of meditations.
Just like you don’t need to begin meditating for 30 minutes, you also don’t have to start with any particular type of meditation.
I found silent seated meditation the hardest, due to my restlessness and fear of sitting still. I tried for a couple of years to sit and meditate, but I could never seem to stick to it.
Guided meditations are what really helped me to develop a regular meditation practice. It felt so nice to start meditating and not have to worry about what to do and also to have someone’s voice bringing me back when my thoughts distracted me.
Experiment on your own with different types of meditations and see what works for you. Maybe it’s a guided meditation, yoga nidra, moving meditation, or mindfulness meditation.
It took me six years to even try silent seated meditation again, and even then it was still difficult. But it was a lot easier after practicing so many other types of meditations beforehand, which taught me how to calm my mind.
8. Understand that meditation is not about achieving a certain state of mind.
A meditation teacher once told me that he often hears from people, “I can’t do meditation.” He explained that most people meant they can’t achieve an empty mind or a blissful feeling. His response: “Meditation is not about achieving anything. It’s just about sitting still. All I want you to do is sit still for 10 minutes.”
That’s it. Meditation is a practice. It’s not about achieving some perfect state of mind each and every time you sit down. Do your best to sit still for a specific period of time. Because when the body becomes still, the mind becomes still.
Yet don’t worry if you need to move. If you feel a pain in your body, the worst thing is to spend the rest of your meditation focusing on that pain.
If you feel a need to move, move mindfully into a new position and then return to your meditation. Over time, you’ll need to move less and less.
9. Find an accountability partner.
So often we desperately want to try something in order to improve our health or state of mind, but we can’t manage to make a commitment. Oftentimes when this happens, we haven’t expressed our desire or intention to anybody else.
Be sure to tell someone close to you about your desire to start meditating, and your intention behind it. Tell them when you plan to fit meditation in your schedule. Even better, find somebody else who wants to begin meditating too, and hold each other accountable by checking in with each other each week.
If you’ve been telling yourself you should meditate, yet your anxiety is getting in your way, now might be the perfect time to try these tools. I can tell you from personal experience that it may not be easy, but with these simple strategies it is possible. Not only is it possible, but the reward of consistent practice will change your life and bring you into a state of calmness you didn’t know you even had.
Author: Bethany Fullerton
Image: Christie Creative/Instagram
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Sara Kärpänen
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