Shortness of breath. Increased heart rate. Racing thoughts. A sense of impending doom. My personal favorite: Lying awake in the middle of the night obsessing over something you did two years ago that probably no one either a) remembers or b) cares about.
If you’ve ever had a panic attack at the hands of anxiety, you know this song and dance all too well. A study from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that 40% of those polled report that they experience persistent anxiety and stress in their everyday lives, including at work. Furthermore, according to the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, anxiety disorders result in an average loss of 4.6 workdays per month, and about 5.5 workdays of decreased productivity each month.
There’s no question that anxiety is taking a toll not just on our personal lives, but on our careers as well. While more people are opening up about their battles with anxiety, managing it is an entirely different thing altogether.
My battle with anxiety
When I searched for ways to take control of my own raging anxiety, the concept of meditation kept coming up. Now, I was no stranger to meditation, or so I thought. I was well aware of its almost immediate effects in calming the mind and body, as well as the long-term benefits of leading a happier life. I’d taken a few yoga and meditation classes, but I never walked away from those sessions feeling how I imagined I was supposed to feel.
That is until I completed a 30-day meditation challenge. To be clear, I didn’t go into this challenge thinking that it would “cure” my anxiety. I wanted to add a few minutes of peace into my day. I found the challenge in an audio-based fitness app I’d started using since the new year. It seemed simple enough: meditate each day starting with five-minute sessions, and work your way up to 30-minute sessions.
Here are a few lessons I learned from this challenge.
Lesson 1: It all comes back to breathing
On day one of the challenge, I was feeling confident and ready to zone out before I began my workday. But surprise! My mind wandered almost immediately after I pressed play and closed my eyes.
Instead of getting discouraged, I turned my attention back to my breathing per my instructor’s advice and tried not to think about anything other than that. And you know what? It worked. Those five minutes flew by, and I was left with a clear mind.
This may not be an earth-shattering discovery, but I was surprised at how well this translated when it comes to anxiety management. Whenever I start to feel anxious about something, my thoughts are the first thing I lose control over. My breathing would then quicken to the point where I’d get stomach aches from built-up air. Now, whenever I feel anxious thoughts barreling my way, I take a step back and focus just on breathing. There is something calming about concentrating on something so simple.
Lesson 2: I needed to acknowledge anxious feelings rather than trying to force them away
For most people, the go-to reaction when anxious thoughts start to manifest is to push them away. However, if you’ve been there before, you know that doesn’t always work. The same principle applies to meditation.
Rather than getting frustrated with myself, I acknowledged any drifting thoughts as they appeared. This instantly eliminated the pressure of having an “empty” mind and allowed me to remain in this state of fluid thought.
I noticed that when I recognize I’m having anxious thoughts, it can minimize the power of those feelings. It’s almost as if I’m looking at my mind from a bird’s eye view. When I acknowledge anxious thoughts for what they are, I am able to process them more quickly and stop myself from spiraling.
Lesson 3: Daily practice is key
As the sessions grew longer, sitting still for more than 15 minutes was becoming difficult, especially on days when I could feel the persistent pull of my to-do list. On those days, my panic-stricken thoughts would tell me that sitting still wasn’t a good use of my time.
But as I stuck with the challenge, those thoughts began to wear away. It became evident week after week that practicing each day is the key to making the most of meditation, and that it will always be a practice.
On dealing with anxiety post-meditation challenge
Since the challenge ended, I’ve learned to accept, rather than resist, my anxious thoughts. What made this challenge so impactful wasn’t the sense of accomplishment I felt afterward. I was grateful to discover how I can incorporate meditation into my mental health journey.
But make no mistake, this hasn’t been an easy road. There are plenty of days that I struggle, and there probably always will be. But through meditation, I’ve gained the ability to look anxiety in the face and let it go. This has positively impacted my personal life, as well as how I approach my work.
Everyone has a different story to tell when it comes to anxiety. And the truth is, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to managing it. Anxiety impacts all of us in different ways. But perhaps by slowing down and making time for ourselves, we can all live a little lighter.
Kat Ambrose is a writer for e-commerce and SAAS companies.