Monday, July 6, 2015

What Sitting In Traffic Taught Me About Meditation

Before I even begin, let me make a CYA disclaimer: I do not meditate in traffic. Or in my car in general. Or on my bike or the treadmill or any other situation in which I could potentially hurt myself or others by not being fully aware of my surroundings. I realize this sounds like a no-brainer but... you never know.

I have been doing a lot of meditation at home. I started using Headspace, which I was leery of at first (mostly because I don't like to pay for apps because I'm thrifty), but I've grown to love it. Being guided and somewhat similar from one day to the next, it allows me to focus on the actual words and process, instead of sitting there thinking, "how much longer? My foot itches. What should I make for dinner?". If you're interested in getting into meditation, I highly suggest the free trial, and I swear they are not paying me or compensating me to write this in any way. I just have found it a very helpful method. 

As part of the meditation, the guide emphasizes not only what you can do during the meditation, but what you can do during daily life to help focus on the present moment. He reminds the listener that our brains are bound to wander, and that's OK, but then when we have a chance, to gently bring ourselves back to the present moment. In a later series (the one I'm currently doing) he brings in the idea of labeling a distraction from the present moment as a "thinking" or "feeling", and without judgement or thinking about it further. Just noticing what type of distraction it was, letting it go, and coming back to the present.

I've noticed that much of my anxiety is due to brain wanders. Others I know who suffer from anxiety have told me they feel similarly. The exception being bad physical pain that's happening in the moment  - i.e if you've just break your leg, the moment IS the problem - much of what makes us anxious is the "what if". What if I'm late to work and my boss gets upset or I miss that meeting..." "What if I do xyz and my significant other/friend gets angry and we get in a fight..." "What if I forget to pick up those groceries and I ruin dinner plans ..." The list goes on and on.

For those with (hypo)mania and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, these thoughts, and therefore anxiety, can spiral out of control. The more we focus on these thoughts, the more they start to become our reality - a sort of self fulfilling prophecy. Have you ever been so nervous about doing something that you ended up doing the exact thing you'd repeatedly reminded yourself not to do? We've been focusing so much on on the action that the "don't" somehow goes out the window. It's  like the old "don't think of a pink elephant" trick - the more you're told not to, the less you can think of anything except a pink elephant. That's how anxiety works. It latches on, and then perpetuates itself. 

So as I sat in my car in traffic, half being mad at myself for not planning ahead for traffic, half frustrated that I was running late. It also gave my brain plenty of time to wander to other topics, many of which were worries or stressors. Then it occurred to me, what a perfect time to practice these techniques that the meditation was suggesting. Instead of letting my thoughts run away, I turned up the radio, flipped around until I found something fun and light-hearted, rolled down my windows, and sang along. While I'm not sure my traffic neighbors appreciated this, I did. And you know what? It worked. I stopped worrying so much about traffic. I became less anxious about the "what ifs" in my head, because I wasn't focusing on them. And I stopped being mad at myself for not planning ahead, because I was turning something frustrating into a positive opportunity to practice these techniques of being in the present.

I bet you think I'm going to say, "and you know, I wasn't late after all!". Nope, not the case. I was late to my networking group meetup. But nobody was upset. The "what ifs" of "I'm new to this group and I'm going to walk in and all the heads are going to turn and make me feel more awkward than I already do because I am socially awkward in groups" weren't true. Actually, so many people had cancelled that the organizer was glad I had made it. And even if all heads had awkwardly turned at me, would thinking about that scenario the entire time I sat in traffic make me any less awkward? No. It would have most likely made me feel moreso, because I'd not only been experiencing the awkwardness of the moment, but the awkwardness I'd built up in my head for the last half hour.

Now, I want to be clear. I'm not in any way, shape, or form suggesting that anxiety, hypomania, or other conditions are "all in our head" and if we just don't think about them they go away. I could still feel the anxiety under the surface. I could still feel thoughts floating around in my head from hypomania. Those I have no power (other than perhaps medication) against. But in trying not to focus on them, I didn't give them additional fuel to grow stronger. We may not be able to control when these conditions rear their ugly heads, but we can at least try to learn some techniques for trying not to make them worse than they already are. For me, this was it. If nothing else, it helps with those times that my anxiety and frustration are caused not by my condition, but just by every day life stressors - a long day at work, a traffic jam when I'm already running late, etc.  And if I can help to control those moments, then at least helps to give me more time in between the anxiety attacks and hypomanic episodes that I have less control over, where I can feel a bit more inner peace. 

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