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Meditating on anxiety

One of my clients — I’ll call him Mark — took up meditation to help with his lifelong anxiety. He was all too aware of his tendency to over-analyze and worry about everything. He’d been meditating on and off for two years, gone on retreats, read tons of dharma books, done everything he could think of.

But he felt like there was no progress at all. He told me that every sit still featured that same old frenzied monkey mind swinging from tree to tree. It was nothing but frustration.

I have to say, I empathize. I bet you’ve been in a similar place, too. We all take up meditation with some kind of goal in mind. And we really do put in our best efforts. But what do we do when it doesn’t work?

We’ve all been told since childhood that if we want something to happen, we have to MAKE it happen. This is true, up to a point.

But for Mark, this was creating the exact opposite of what he wanted. The harder he tried, the more it stirred up his mind. The more it emphasized how far he was from where he wanted to be. Which brought on more anxiety and self-criticism. The more he pushed himself, the more another part of him rebelled. He’d get into battles with himself.

Ugh! Stop!

For one, I thought his mindfulness practice was doing just fine. It was going so well that he was seeing himself – and his overactive mind – face to face, as it really was. Congratulations, I told him. Your meditation IS working for you. Just because you don’t like what you see doesn’t make it wrong.

When we’re dealing with lifelong habits and tendencies, taking up meditation won’t make them just go away. It’s not like a pill we take to get rid of the parts of ourselves that we don’t like. It’s more like a very accurate mirror. It reflects us back in great intimate detail, so we can see clearly and start working with ourselves better. This is when things can really start happening.

Sure it sounds unpleasant. But which would you prefer — to stick with the same old familiar habits that aren’t working, or venture into new territory that points to freedom from those habits?

And so how do we point toward freedom?

I think the answer is to give up. I’m serious.

I don’t mean give up meditation. I mean give up the fight. I suggested to Mark that he stop all the effort and obsessing. Just sit and be with what is. Everything changes in every moment. Just observe the organic ebb and flow.

What? How does that help?

Obviously we can’t change what’s already happened. Anxiety, frustration, worry – whatever is there is there, for better or worse. It does no good to get upset about it. All we can do is change the way we RESPOND to what’s there.

So rather than meeting it with more judgment and frenzy, we meet it with acceptance, calm, and kindness. We’re practicing being the sort of person we want to be, RIGHT NOW. We stop perpetuating the same old cycle. If we can’t muster a calm and kind response, even just taking a breath and acknowledging what’s happening is a change in the right direction. ANY tiny step in the direction of less frenzy is great. That’s all it takes.

Mark wondered how he’d know if he’s making any progress. It feels so … well … passive.

I suggested that he drop worrying about that as well. Really, we can’t know what “progress” will look like. We’ll know it when we see it, but we can’t predict what it’ll be in advance — in the same way that we can’t predict what a particular oak tree will look like when holding it in acorn form.

But we DO know that acorns grow upward toward the sun. If we keep our intentions pointed upward in the same way (not grasping or worrying, but just facing upward and keeping a open, positive attitude), progress is inevitable.

As the Buddha said,

“If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.”

Note he said “happiness follows.” Not “we make happiness happen.”

With each small moment of awareness, it’s like we’re watering and fertilizing the seeds of peace in the soil of our consciousness. We can’t MAKE them sprout and bloom. But if we do our part, we can surrender the rest to a natural process that will always come through for us.

I’ve really grown to trust that this is the way things are.

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About Sunada Takagi

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Sunada Takagi is on a mission to help people open their hearts and minds through mindfulness. Her work includes leading classes in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in the Boston area, and coaching individual clients through life transitions -- from anywhere in the world via phone and Skype. Read more at her site, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching.

Sunada also teaches and leads retreats at Boston Triratna Buddhist Community and Aryaloka Buddhist Center. Sunada was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 2004. This is where she received her name, which means "beautiful, excellent sound."

You can follow her at her Mindful Living Blog as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Read more articles by .

Comments

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Comment from Mark (yes, really!)
Time: June 27, 2011, 4:56 pm

Such wise words. The trick is to reach an understanding, at a really profound level, that worrying, analyzing, attempting to assert control and generally trying to second-guess your way through life has very little impact upon outcomes.

Many people, myself included, really struggle to accept this conclusion and its implications: that despite the illusions the modern consumerist society tries to sell us, we really have very little control over anything.

Just like alcohol, nicotine or caffeine, anxiety is an addiction and there’s a period of ‘cold turkey’ involved in quitting, when, peversely, the anxiety may well get worse for a while.

So when it comes down to it, initially it has to be something of a leap of faith. Try just ‘stopping’ for a few minutes – get comfy, gaze up at the sky and strip away any expectations. It will feel uncomfortable, your mind may tell you you’re wasting your time, you might feel, scared, guilty, stupid, vain or just plain bored.

But sooner or later you’ll get a brief glimpse of what it feels like to be thinking of, well, nothing in particular, and how soothing it feels.

And once you begin to understand just how exhausting ‘over-thinking’ is and how, if anything, it can actually have a negative effect on outcomes, things will start to change.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: June 27, 2011, 7:42 pm

Thank you, Mark. You sound like someone who is speaking from experience. And that you’ve found your way through the tunnel and to the other side. Congratulations.

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Comment from Mark (yes, really!)
Time: June 28, 2011, 12:39 am

With some help from you along the way! Thankyou.

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Comment from Chris
Time: June 28, 2011, 7:38 am

Mantra meditation works wonders for stress, anxiety, depression or any form of mental or emotional disorders. Buddha remembrance through Buddha Name recitation is most ideal. One chants repeatedly either silently or aloud ‘Amitabha Buddha’. One would actually be disengaged from thoughts and emotions during the practice and only be an observer to them. It doesn’t take long before one feels calm and tranquil. The key here is perseverance and continuity (with absolutely no breaks). In the process, one would also be generating merit and obliterating bad karma.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: June 28, 2011, 9:23 am

Oh, Mark, I just figured out who you are. That’s great to know that you’ve kept up your practice and it’s served you so well!

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Comment from Mark (yes, really!)
Time: June 28, 2011, 9:31 am

Still a work in progress, Sunada, with plenty of ups and downs, but that’s all part of the deal…! M

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Comment from Sunada
Time: June 28, 2011, 9:41 am

Yes, indeed. That’s all part of the deal.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: June 28, 2011, 6:14 pm

Chris, thanks for your thoughts on chanting. I enjoy chanting too, especially with other people, and getting a good group energy going. Works wonders for getting into a positive mental space.

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Comment from Matthew
Time: June 28, 2011, 7:51 pm

I have just recently been faced with this roadblock of doubting my meditation. Everything was going fine but for some reason an old habit of doubting myself has kicked in, and I seem to be arguing with myself a lot lately. Is perseverance they key? Try to accept everything for what it is?

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Comment from meditation
Time: June 29, 2011, 3:23 am

I have to say, I empathize. I bet you’ve been in a similar place, too. We all take up meditation with some kind of goal in mind.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: June 29, 2011, 8:13 am

Hi Matthew, If you have a history of thoughts of doubting yourself, it doesn’t surprise me to hear that they have come back. Like what Mark says above, thoughts like that are habits. And habits don’t just go away when we start meditating.

Generally speaking, the way to approach any thought is to treat it as “just a thought,” to not take it so seriously. You might try labeling it as a thought, and seeing if you can set it aside. But I realize that doubt is a really powerful energy, and hard to let go. It’s not so easy to do.

I don’t like giving you a facile answer for such a complicated subject! Self-doubt is an issue that’s much bigger in scope than meditation, and really too complex to talk about here. Do you have friends or others who can help you to work through these difficulties?

I might also be able to work with you on this, if you’d like. You can find out more about my coaching work at my other website, http://www.mindfulpurpose.com.

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Comment from Mark (yes, really!)
Time: June 29, 2011, 8:47 am

Matthew,

I too have a tendency to question and doubt everything that I do. But things started to improve when I decided to stop taking the doubts so seriously, making room for more positive thoughts.

This had a mildly beneficial effect, but then I wondered what would happen if I just ignored those doubting voices and trusted my intuition.

The breakthrough came when I was obseessing so much about something that I realised I was bored with the pointless circular dialogue and made a pact with myself to do more and worry less.

I still think twice before doing something really important, like spending a large sum of money or tackling a potentially dangerous challenge, but putting doubts on the back burner and just getting on with it certainly makes life a lot lighter and more enjoyable.

Oh, and I can vouch for the effectiveness of Sunada’s gentle approach to coaching.

M

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Comment from Johnny Duran
Time: June 29, 2011, 8:49 am

yep, this monkey mind business is capable of discouraging the most ardent beginning meditators, with the passing of years one is apt to just say well, this is it. What is, is. As Alan watts once, very wisely and black humorously said, the human condition is like a lot of lice on a pan in the fire… they jump up, then fall back down, and then have to just jump up again… and again…

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Comment from Johnny Duran
Time: June 29, 2011, 8:51 am

a hundred percent sure I have not said that before… a robot mistake, it seems.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: June 29, 2011, 9:40 am

Johnny, thanks for that lice in a hot pan story. Very apt. As I always say, as long as we have a mind, we’re going to have thoughts and running commentaries. We better get used to it.

And Mark, thank you for the vote of confidence!

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Comment from Matthew
Time: June 29, 2011, 8:22 pm

Thanks for the advice guys!

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Comment from Christina
Time: July 4, 2011, 11:42 am

I am new to meditation…about a year ago, I took a class on stress reduction where I was required to particpate in guided meditation and breathing exercises. I loved the class and found that once I calmed my mind, I was able to listen and relax. My life, since then has changed quite a bit and I now have bad anxiety and self-doubt due to marital issues. I am not interested in psychotherapy but am considering guided meditation to help me live in a more positive, fulfilling and forgiving life. Not sure if I should jump into the online class starting tomorrow on mindfulness and love or if I should start on my own first. Any thought and insight is welcome!

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Comment from Sunada
Time: July 4, 2011, 11:56 am

Hi Christina,
It’s really up to you. I’ve had people take the class who are completely new to meditation, and others who have had a few years of experience on their own. Would having the structure and input of a course would feel helpful? Or do you think there’s some room to grow by working on your own for a while and getting more grounded first? Go with whatever feels more comfortable and “right” for you.

Best wishes,
Sunada

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Comment from Paul Harrison – Master Nomi
Time: July 4, 2011, 2:15 pm

I have always used mindfulness to become part of
the moment of doing something and fully engaging.
For instance, when drinking tea or coffee, fully
become aware of all aspects of the preparation,
pouring, and drinking without thinking of
something else. Just be present, its a great
exercise and then return to the breath when
needed.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: July 4, 2011, 3:29 pm

Paul, Yes I agree that’s a great way to reinforce mindfulness throughout the day. Ultimately, when we’re fully awake, we’re completely present all the time, no matter what we’re doing, any time of the day. So I keep practicing, practicing, practicing….

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Comment from Gabriel
Time: July 27, 2011, 9:37 pm

Indeed…

How many times in meditation myself faced to the dilema: is it ok?

And, when less expected, myself clinged to the idea.

So, in that moment the practice focused to “right” or “wrong” meditation.

But somehow, now when practicing myself remembers this experiencie and take it (just to leave it again) to re focus on my breath… And then just let go again.

That’s great support, remembering that thoughts and impulses of any kind are part of this relative self…

Now myself just says: ok, here it is, and it’s focused on telling this practice right now is not right, is lousy and full of thoughts… Then just realize it an feel content with it… And it’s curious how it leads me to say: THIS IS meditation.

Thanks

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Comment from Anne
Time: August 4, 2011, 12:32 am

Hi right now in my life, I am experiencing many emotional, mental and spiritual challenges with different things going on in my life. I have always been a person that worries so much; I can sometimes cause myself to fall into a depression. I feel secretly that I suffer from anxiety attacks due to my worry about fearful situations. I feel like my self-esteem and confidence are on a roller coaster ride always going up and down. I have a fear of being stagnant in my career and personal life, not meeting someone who genuinely loves me. I have a big heart and usually see the good in others but have a hard time accepting the good in myself. I feel like the choices and mistakes I made in the past, I cannot seem to forgive myself and often go through an emotional battle with myself when I encounter a similar situation thinking that the outcome will be the same. I believe in God and I believe in prayer and I have been trying to practice the art of mindfulness and mediation, but I am having a very challenging time. I want to be happy so bad and find peace in my heart and mind but can’t seem to believe or feel it’s there for me.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: August 4, 2011, 9:58 am

Anne,

I’m so sorry to hear about all the difficulties you’re going through. You said you want to be happy and find peace in your heart. It IS there for you, and you DO deserve every bit of it. Do you have anyone that you can talk to for help? Not only friends and/or family, but also a professional who can help you navigate through all your challenges? If you don’t, I would urge you to find someone. who can You have every right to be happy, and want to encourage you to keep looking toward it.

And Gabriel,
I apologize, it seems I hadn’t responded to your post from several days ago. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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Pingback from Mid-Week Balance: 29 June 2011
Time: August 15, 2011, 4:53 pm

[...] Sunada is one of the regular contributors at the Buddhist meditation blog Wildmind.  If you follow my Twitter feed, or my Facebook page, you know that I’m a strong proponent of the benefits of meditation.  This post does a nice job of walking through how the paradoxical nature of meditation can be useful for someone facing anxiety. [...]

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Pingback from Easy Relaxation Techniques To Help You Sleep – Proven Relaxation Techniques
Time: September 30, 2011, 6:57 pm

[...] Here’s a great article by Sunada about using mediation to reduce the symptoms of stress, worry and anxiety that appeared in the great site here [...]

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Pingback from The best of Wildmind, 2011 | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation
Time: December 31, 2011, 2:46 pm

[...] Click to read more » [...]

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Comment from Kristin
Time: January 6, 2012, 9:15 pm

I have suffered with sometimes debilitating anxiety and panic through out my life. At 27, i have gone through more then what most have their whole life. I find that stress brings on my anxiety, and that i have what is called generalized anxiety disorder, with some occurances of obsessive thoughts. The thought’s started when i became ‘too smart’ for my everyday worries. Or atleast that is what i thought. I have reached the point where i am thuroughly fed up. Today i seen a new therapist and tried meditation for the first time. It wasn’t easy, but i was able to gain from it, and i did not get discouraged. I like Mark found it hard to separate myself from the thoughts and let them be. It lasted for about 10-15 minutes, and i was talked through it by the therapit. It really did give my mind and body a peaceful rest, just a few minutes to collect me for a change. Not everyone or everything else. I look forward to continuing using this technique, and am honestly hopeful for the very first time in my life that things WILL get better, but that only I can make them better. It;s a hard pill to swallow, but there comes a time when you realise..this controls me no more. I wish anyone that is suffering from this as i have for so long that you reach that point quickly, as i feel it only get’s better from here. I wish you the most heartfelt luck ans success, from someone who has been there.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: January 9, 2012, 12:42 pm

Kristin, thank you for this. Hearing a personal account from someone who is going through it herself is a powerful inspiration. I hope your story encourages others in similar situations to find their way out!

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Comment from Micah
Time: January 16, 2012, 5:22 pm

Thank you everyone for sharing your stories and advice. I am 29 and I too have experienced near debilitating panic/anxiety for the past 5-6 years. I was taught the same technique as Kristin above and I have learned various other meditation techniques that have helped tremendously. But none of these techniques made my anxiety/panic disappear overnight but they have given me hope and some insight into the causes of my anxiety. I am confident if I stick with these meditations I will only get better for my sake and my families sake. One piece of advice that I read in a book that has helped me a lot is: “Thinking is the natural activity of the mind. Meditation is not about stopping your thoughts. Meditation is simply a process of resting the mind in it’s natural state, which is open to and naturally aware of thoughts, emotions, and sensations as they occur.” I wish for all of you to be well and happy and thanks again for sharing your stories, they have inspired me a great deal.

Micah

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Comment from Richard
Time: February 21, 2012, 7:34 pm

I was wondering if many people have had similar feelings like this. I hope it is a phase. Having just become a student I have suddenly found my entire world has shifted from being a positive life loving person without any doubts in the whole world or qualms about what other people thought to an anxious worried person. I have suddenly found my entire view of the world is almost warped. An anxiety verging on paranoia – when i enter a room or have a drink at a bar and hear people laugh or see people talking i will think they’re talking of me which means that i don’t focus entirely on what the person I’m meeting is saying and appear distant which then in turn I worry about… Self doubt has become embedded in life, I overthink everything not relaxing always thinking ahead trying to achieve happiness but never getting it, crying for no reason i feel lost and ask myself who I am is this really me? The worst thing is that to divulge this information to someone leaves you vulnerable but at the same time you don’t want to be a burden, you don’t want that person to feel a duty to be with you… then you seem to get stuck in a negative cycle. I doubt myself why would people want to be around me am i interesting? I feel like I am living off the legacy of the past me, I hate to show my family that i’m happy as everything in my life points to the fact that I should be happy, it seems to be just me. Now I have begun meditation and hopefully things may change. Richard

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Comment from Sunada
Time: February 21, 2012, 8:46 pm

Dear Richard,
I’m wondering if you’ve consulted with a mental health professional about your situation. From the way you describe it, it sounds like it happened very suddenly and quite strongly — and it’s probably a good idea to get specific help on it. Yes, it’s good to take up meditation, but it’s not a treatment plan for anxiety.
Best wishes,
Sunada

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 21, 2012, 10:39 pm

I’d agree with Sunada, Richard. Go see your student health services and talk to them about seeing a counsellor or therapist. What you’re experiencing doesn’t sound like the run-of-the-mill nervousness that people get in new situations. Go talk to someone. In itself, that action could help you feel a bit better.

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Comment from needhops
Time: July 22, 2012, 6:08 pm

I believe that what you said in this article is similar to the conclusion I drew the other day. I am someone who stuggles with some anxiety, especially in certain social settings. I have been practicing meditating for a few months now, but went on and off, but have gotten serious in the past 3 weeks or so. the other day when i was going to a situation that usually gives me a ton of anxiety, I sort of realized that the anxiety is going to be there. it has always been there. it is not going to one day suddenly disappear. I pretty much accepted the anxiety. To paraphrase something from a book im reading, there is no parallel world next to this one. This is the only reality that there is. With that in mind, I decided that its up to me to determine how I want this interaction to go. I can let anxiety control the situation and go into timid autopilot, or I can be in control and act as I want. it is as if I separated myself from the anxiety. In my opinion, this is a result of meditation. I believe that meditation won’t cure my anxiety, but it will give me the ability to cope despite it being there

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Comment from Sunada
Time: July 26, 2012, 2:37 pm

Hi needhops,
I thought I’d offer you my congratulations for finding a way through your anxiety. That’s a big step forward. I’m guessing that as you continue to work in this way, your anxiety will lessen over time. I’m actually an anxious type too, and I suspect I will be that way to some extent for the rest of my life. But it seems to be getting tamer over the years. I wish you similar relief from your anxiety as well.

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Comment from Robbo
Time: September 1, 2012, 7:15 am

Hi Sunada. I was wondering if you could advise me on an issue Im currently facing. I suffer from anxiety and have for a while. I recently have been working on a CBT program which has helped to some degree and still have some work to do on it. Lately though, I have been applying mindfulness to everyday tasks and trying to stay in the moment the best I can. Even when I sometimes struggle I look to the next moment to become mindful of.

I feel like applying mindfulness in every moment is good for me, but interferes with my CBT. Essentially if I become mindful from moment to moment I will have no thoughts to monitor therefore wont be able to change them, which is what CBT is all about. Plus the times when I dont manage to become mindful in the moment, my old thoughts come in and are as negative as they used to be.

Im just wondering if it’s wise to focus on one or the other? CBT or applying mindfulness in every moment?

Thanks

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Comment from Sunada
Time: September 3, 2012, 8:22 pm

Dear Robbo,
Mindfulness and CBT are VERY complimentary. There is no reason why you should have to drop one in order to focus on the other. In fact, you will likely get better results if you combine the two.

It sounds like you are equating mindfulness with having no thoughts, and that’s not accurate. Mindfulness means paying attention to whatever is happening in this moment, INCLUDING any thoughts. We can notice the content of our thoughts without getting drawn into them, in the same way you can observe your hand. It’s the same principle.

You said that when you manage to become mindful, your old thoughts come in. YES! That’s what’s supposed to happen. We can’t stop thoughts from coming in. The idea is not to try to stop them, but to observe them — exactly the same process that CBT trains you to do. So as you can see, the two are very much aiming toward the same thing.

Best wishes,
Sunada

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Comment from suneth
Time: August 21, 2013, 12:04 am

Hi Sunada i was wondering whether you could help me with my problem. i am currently in year 12 and everytime i face a test in a subject i begin to rush. after intense self reflection i found that i rushed because i was anxious to find whether each problem on the test was able to be solved. therefore the questions which woulld initially appear unsolvable i would rush only to discover after the test that they were easier than thought. could you help me

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Comment from Sunada Takagi
Time: August 23, 2013, 4:47 pm

Dear Suneth,
First of all, I wanted to congratulate you on figuring out what was causing you to rush. That was a great use of your mindfulness skills! So now you know that your anxiety is not based on anything real. But you’ve gotten into the habit of feeling rushed. And I know it’s very difficult to stop.

Next time you feel it happening, this is what I suggest. Pause and take a deep breath or two. Remember that it’s not based on anything real. It’s just your emotions running away with themselves. Try noting what that sense of rush feels like in your body. Is it tightness in the chest? Does your breathing gets shallow? You might also just name the fact that you feel rushed. Perhaps saying to yourself, “Rush, rush.” These are all examples of ways to keep yourself grounded in what’s REALLY happening, instead of letting yourself get carried away with your thoughts. You might try practicing doing this with milder situations so you can get some practice first.

You now know that you are capable of doing better on these tests. Don’t let yourself be a victim of those runaway anxieties.

Best wishes,
Sunada

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Comment from Naomi
Time: December 26, 2013, 1:38 am

Dear Sunada,

This article really reflects how I feel most of the time when it comes to mindful meditation. I have always been a ‘worrier’ and over this past year I have found my anxiety to be incredibly debilitating. I have been to a therapist to help me with my approach to anxiety and how to cope with it, particularly applying mindfulness. Although the concept makes sense when I read about it, I always find it hard to apply it, especially when in the thick of a situation that causes high anxiety for me. From the reading the stories of other people who have felt or still feel the same way gives me hope that I’m not alone and that it is possible to become more accepting and compassionate towards oneself. Thank you for this article and to all those who have dealt with anxiety or depression, I truly wish you all the best.

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Comment from Vrajesh
Time: February 19, 2014, 4:28 pm

This Article sums up my experience with meditation for the past two years. I did a retreat 10 day one, i also meditated at home, anywhere i could find time…, i would constantly obsess about meditation and meditating and releasing stress etc.. And when i would meditate if the outcome came out differently it would lead into frustration and a lot of self-criticism and different negativities.

What do i do now?

I don’t think about meditation as much. There is a time to meditate and when that time comes during the day or night it requires for you to drop things that involve effort one by one and just letting go of each thing.

I just sit or lie down comfortably, and follow my mind, if it pulls me in one direction i go, if it doesn’t, i sit there. I take away the power of anything my mind throws up at me. I do this slowly because sometimes the worries still get me. I get all kinds of thoughts ranging from this doesnt work, to intrusive dark thoughts, frustrating thoughts, “what if” thoughts, something wrong with me thoughts…and i just try my best to let it all happen.

We cannot force a feeling, we cannot force relaxation, we cannot force a calm mind, we cannot force feeling good. We cannot force thinking positive. The force creates the stress.

Rather, it is through acceptance or a smaller step would be like “ok i am not going to fight you anymore” really stops the worry in its steps.

Vrajesh

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Comment from Charles
Time: May 25, 2014, 11:14 pm

I have been studying alot of Eckhart Tolle’s work and have come to the same conclusion after reading this article.We can’t force happiness to happen like the article says. We have to allow it to happen, if we go into meditation expecting things we defeat the whole purpose of meditation;living in the present. Thanks for this great article.
i’ve had anxiety that just sits in the background like a dark cloud ever since i can remember. I started meditating about a week ago and felt so good the third day, i felt so awakened and my worries wore gone, i felt like i could talk to anyone freely and openly with no fear of judgement or being myself. After i went back into “society” (i was off work for that day) i got really stressed out again and my anxiety came back and it has been back since than.
That is what has brought me here,i have been trying to get that feeling back so hard and now i know that is the problem.I need to stop trying and just let it happen.Thanks again for writing this Sunada.=)

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