As the founder of Meditation Magazine, people often assume that I no longer experience anxiety (or any other mental health issues). But I’ll tell you a little secret: I had a major panic attack today.
I woke up in the middle of the night worrying that we are going to miss our print dates for this issue of Meditation Magazine. We have 40 days until we go to press. The content’s not finished, the layout’s not done, and unless I pull off a miracle, we will not have enough money to print and ship the new issue on the date that we are supposed to. Missing our print date would instantly anger huge swaths of our subscribers, filling my inbox with hate mail, cancelation & refund requests, and more. This is not just some random irrational thought… It is literally my responsibility to move things forward, and we are quickly running out of time.
But about an hour ago, as I was sitting on the floor trying to take care of my baby, I remembered the single most important key to short-circuiting a panic attack!
It was just six words that went through my mind… but those six words instantly put me on a hot-air balloon, gently rising above the anxiety, instead of falling deeper into it:
IT’S OK TO FEEL THIS WAY.
When you’re in the midst of a panic attack, these are not the words that are naturally passing through your brain.
The nature of anxiety is to feel that “This is bad. This is not OK.” When you start feeling those things about the anxiety itself, it becomes a downward spiral – having anxiety about having anxiety about having anxiety. The worse the anxiety gets, the more anxious you feel about it… and on and on it goes. This echo chamber / feedback loop is what keeps anxiety attacks going strong.
The way to short-circuit this vicious cycle is simple: stop generating anxiety in response to anxiety. Accept it. It’s OK. It’s part of being alive.
Instead of getting anxious about the feelings of tightness in your chest, the queasiness in your stomach, the dryness and your mouth, the rising bile in your throat… just feel them. Without judgment. Don’t worry about them… instead, realize that these feelings are a natural part of life, that come and go. Right now, they are here, and later, they will be gone.
It’s OK. Let it be. Don’t try to run away from the anxiety… feel into it. Feel your body, as it is, in this state, with all these feelings. Feel the air flowing in and out of your body. Maybe the inhalations and exhalations are shallower than usual. Maybe you’re getting less oxygen than usual. It’s OK. Just feel it, with openness, acceptance, and even curiosity. “Huh! This is what anxiety feels like.” It’s a natural part of being alive.
As you continue to observe the anxiety with equanimity (non-judgmental awareness), you will begin to rise above it.
You’ll still feel the anxious feelings in your body and mind for a while. This is normal. Your system is full of anxious brain chemicals right now, and they will take time to dissipate. But over time, as you keep observing your feelings with equanimity, you will rise out of the downward spiral.
MEDITATION ISN’T MEANT TO GET RID OF ANXIETY, BUT TO CHANGE YOUR RELATIONSHIP TO IT.
Many people think that meditation is a way to get rid of anxiety. But if you think of it that way, it will only make your anxiety worse.
The idea that you should “get rid of anxiety” inherently implies that anxiety is bad, and that you should not be feeling it. This is the type of thinking that fuels the downward spiral.
So I’ll let you in on another little secret: Meditation does not make anxiety (or any other kind of suffering) disappear forever.
The Buddha found it so fundamentally important to make sure you understand this, that he dedicated the first two of his “Three Marks of Existence” to the following Truths:
There is suffering. Suffering comes in various forms (anxiety, depression, grief, etc) but it is part of life and it is inevitable.
Nothing is permanent. Everything is constantly changing. The Universe is an ever swirling soup of energy and matter. You may be experiencing anxiety now… but it will pass. At some moment in the past, you experienced relaxation. At some moment in the future, you will experience joy. You will continue to cycle through all the feels, for the rest of your life. This is the experience of being human.
This may sound bleak or depressing… and it can be, if you take it that way. “Oh no, everything is going to be terrible forever!” But if, instead, you observe these simple facts unemotionally, like a physicist studying the nature of Reality… then the Truth will set you free.
Accepting Reality – the fact that “Hey, sometimes life is not fun… that’s just the nature of being alive” – is the first step to transcending, or rising above, an anxiety attack.
If you want to spiral deeper into anxiety, try to resist it. Tell yourself “This is bad. I shouldn’t have anxiety right now.” This will make you feel like something is deeply wrong, and will give you anxiety about having anxiety. This is how the downward spiral starts. Having anxiety about having anxiety about having anxiety. DON’T DO THAT.
If you want to STOP the downward spiral, and get on a hot air balloon rising out of the anxiety, tell yourself this instead:
IT’S OK TO FEEL THIS WAY.
TO PRACTICE THIS REALIZATION AS A MEDITATION:
1. Sit in a quiet, comfortable place with your eyes closed.
2. Repeat in your mind or out loud: “It’s ok to feel this way.”
3. Feel the sensations in your body. Just observe them with curiosity, without judging them as positive or negative.
4. Keep observing, as sensations arise, evolve, and disappear.
5. Be aware of the breathing flowing in and out. Don’t try to control it – just watch it flow. In and out. In and out.
6. When your mind gets distracted by thoughts, bring it back to the sensations in your body. Always remember: “It’s ok to feel this way.”
READ THIS AFTER THE ANXIETY HAS SUBSIDED
While realizing that “It’s OK to feel this way” can be a life-saving way to short-circuit anxiety attacks in the present moment, there are also many things that you can do to reduce your anxiety levels over time. Check out our other article – 41 Healthy Ways To Reduce Anxiety In The Long Term – to work on reducing your anxiety over time.