Why do people meditate choose to meditate? There are many possible reasons but one always comes out on top. This issue usually has to be dealt with first. When I ask my students why they want to learn, they typically say they are too anxious. They have runaway minds and sleep poorly. They may also have chronic muscle tension, headaches, pain and poor digestion. They feel off-colour and irritable most of the time (poor immune function). Their mood is low. They feel mentally dull, unable to focus or to enjoy life. If they had tried antidepressants, they didn’t seem to work.
This is the normal anxiety bundle. It involves the whole body and mind, not just mood. Psychologists try to improve mood but tend to neglect the body. Meditation takes the opposite approach. It tackles anxiety from the body up. It releases muscle tension, lowers agitation and improves sleep as the crucial first steps.
Anxiety is a 24/7 state of chronic arousal and muscle tension. Even while asleep, anxious people remain more tense than they need to be. Cortisol levels will remain elevated. They will spend less time in deep sleep. They are likely to wake up frequently during the night and they won’t feel rested in the morning.
It can be surprisingly hard to recognise our own level of anxiety. It is easily masked by hyperactivity and a sense of excitement. Anxiety actually makes us more productive in our early years through the effects of adrenaline and cortisol. Over time it creeps invisibly into all our habits of thought and behaviour. We can easily mistake it as a normal part of our character (‘I was born anxious’). An anxious person never has anxiety-free periods. It is embedded in his musculature.
When we finally recognise it as a problem that could be solved, we’ve usually been anxious for years. We will still tend to underestimate it. Students who come to my classes often say, ‘I’m just feeling a bit anxious these days.’ Fortunately, their psychologist or doctor will often set them straight. ‘This is anxiety. It deserves to be taken seriously.’
Pills and quick-fix palliative techniques are not much use against entrenched anxiety, but mindfulness is promising. If we build a habit of self-observation, we can gradually chip away at the problem. If we notice a clenched jaw or a runaway thought or an emotional overreaction, we can start to undermine it in that very moment.
This is the value of doing short, frequent ‘reset’ meditations during the day. To release a tension ‘on the spot’ is a small but very real improvement and its effects are cumulative. It is much better to dissolve anxiety through hundreds of small adjustments rather than hoping that occasional long meditations will do it.
Anxiety naturally builds on itself. If we don’t relax well, it will build higher and higher baseline levels of arousal and muscle tension as the years go by. Trying to push on regardless can be an acceptable short term solution, but it is dreadful in the long run. Trying to ignore the way we feel (i.e. being unmindful) paradoxically increases tension, cortisol levels and cognitive failings.
We can regard anxiety as maladaptive fear. Fear and worry in themselves are helpful emotions. Fear enables us to respond rapidly to a threat. Worry helps us anticipate and prepare for future problems. Anxiety, however, is directed indiscriminately and ineffectually towards everything. We lose perspective and even small problems can feel like crises.
Fear sharpens the mind and heightens our perceptions under threat, but anxiety just makes us agitated and confused. We feel bad and don’t know what to do about it. Fear is short-lasting and worry should come and go according to circumstances, but anxiety can set in for a lifetime. Because fear and worry are essential to our wellbeing, they tend to stay active in the brain and body long after they have ceased to be useful. We do relax a bit after a stressful email or the drive to work, but usually not much, and not very quickly. A new baseline will have been set.
After a high energy event, we don’t relax completely. We settle back into a state of mild over-arousal that intuitively feels safe, given what has just happened. We remain partially fired-up just in case another predator is lurking. This edgy, ‘looking around for danger’ state makes it hard for us to focus adequately on what we are doing. If we are habitually more stirred up than we need to be for the task at hand, we can self-diagnose this as ‘anxiety’ or ‘stress.’
Anxiety makes us think too quickly to be productive. It is the mental equivalent of the fight-or-flight response. We are all survivors of African ancestors who responded quickly and thoughtlessly to potential threats. This bias for a knee-jerk response doesn’t help when we have to make decisions more complex than ‘fight, flight or freeze’.
Anxiety typically leads to an overactive, runaway, obsessive mind. Our thoughts take over. We can’t stop them or direct them. We overreact to everything indiscriminately. Even when we are exhausted, the mind doesn’t give up and its incessant chatter can keep us awake at night.
Anxiety is like coffee. It increases arousal and energy consumption. It makes more energy available in the bloodstream, but we also burn through it more quickly. Coffee in the morning charges us up, but we can feel exhausted by mid-afternoon. Anxiety depletes us in the same way. This means that we can feel anxiety both as high-energy agitation and as low-energy dullness and muddle.
In the high energy state, the mind is too fast. It jumps too rapidly from one thought to another on impulse, without reflection. It constantly scans the periphery for danger or advantage. It is easily distracted and can’t concentrate. This rapid thought-switching can give us the illusion of being busy and therefore productive.
Unfortunately, burning energy is not the same as doing things well. Shifting attention is always an expensive manoeuvre. We lose energy and a few seconds each time we shift focus and have to adjust our mental settings to another thought or action. If we do this several times a minute, we burn through our reserves very quickly. Multitasking is one of the most wasteful activities we can ever attempt to do.
If the mind is too speedy, it doesn’t spend enough time with any one issue to process it adequately. We leave behind a trail of unfinished, ill-digested actions and often have to return to patch up afterwards. For mental efficiency it is so much better to slow down, pay attention and keep the thought-switching to a minimum. Just a few seconds more with any one issue would be a vast improvement.
Anxiety can also be a low energy state. When our energy is depleted, the mind gets too tired to focus at all. It drifts uncontrollably from one thought to another at the mercy of any distraction, or it defaults to its habitual worries. It can’t follow a train of thought productively and often just spaces out.
When we are tired and fretful, we can still function and apparently get through the day, but there is a price. We won’t be mindful enough to adequately monitor what we are doing. Nor will we remember much or indeed anything about what we’ve done. We will probably be forgetful and neglect important details. Our mood will be poor, with little enjoyment or enthusiasm. We will also be worried that we are not functioning well, which is of course an accurate assessment.
This combination of low energy, dull attention, scrappy performance, poor recall, irritability and foul mood can make us feel we are not coping well at all. In fact, this is a rule-of-thumb definition of stress. Whether the demands on you are heavy or light, you can say that you are ‘stressed’ if you feel that you don’t have the inner or outer resources to cope with them. One more email or harsh comment can make you snap.
About 10-20% of the population are likely to be suffering from anxiety at any one time, and it is a common component of other maladies. People with free-floating anxiety are often diagnosed as having a Generalised Anxiety Disorder. About a quarter of such people will also face the horror of panic attacks. These sudden eruptions of paralytic fear can occur without any obvious trigger and are often mistaken for heart attacks.
Habitual anxiety, the high energy state, often leads inexorably over the years into mild depression, the low energy state. With no energy or enthusiasm, many people give in to a sense of futility. They get trapped in dull, obsessive, circular patterns of thought. They eat, drink, smoke, shop, watch TV or sleep, all to excess and with varying degrees of self-loathing.
Many fall into the roundabout of legal drugs (antidepressants and anxiolytics). For many people, these only seem to be helpful in the short term, and their benefits are by no means obvious. The legal drugs often have wide-ranging and unpredictable side-effects over time. For many people, there is a significant risk that prolonged use is more likely to exacerbate their low mood rather than alleviate it.
All this horror can start with feeling ‘just a bit anxious.’ Since chronic anxiety naturally edges upwards from existing levels of arousal, it is well worth trying to reverse it at an early stage. Fairly minor interventions are usually enough to maintain existing levels and prevent blowouts. With deliberate training however, it is possible to reverse and virtually cure anxiety. It all starts with relaxing the body, and controlling attention and thought.