I’ve always been a worrier. Since I was little, I’ve been able to find a reason to fret about pretty much anything — from my health, to the weather, to the spider I just saw on the ceiling and I KNOW is going to drop onto my face. As a kid and teen, however, I was so busy living my fast-paced young life that I didn’t have much time to work up anxiety and dwell on any existential dilemma.
That changed when I went to college.
Suddenly I had a ton of time to sit around and think about things like the future, the outside world and how it all might affect me. My brain became a terrifying place that would start to strategically attack itself if I gave it even the slightest leeway. So much for basking in the lazy glory of those one- or two-class days.
I started seeing a therapist at school to cope with the uptick in my anxiety, and while that definitely helped, I’d continue to have these freakout moments in which I couldn’t shut off my worrying brain. Every time I told my therapist about them, she’s point me towards meditation and all its incredible benefits.
So I tried it — over and over again for years — but I just couldn’t get with the program.
I started with traditional Zen Buddhist meditation. You know, where you sit in vajra posture, back straight but not too straight, head tilted slightly down, and eyes half open? Yeah, that one. Then all you have to do is focus on breathing in serenity and breathing out your distractions.
Here’s what happens when I try to let go of my anxious thoughts. They go, “No wait, we have one more thing to tell you!” and all come rushing back into my brain. Then it’s like I’m sifting through countless files trying to find that thing I need to remember before I shut everything off. Everything I have to do today, tomorrow, or six months from now becomes priority number one, and the 15 minutes I set aside for meditation is standing in the way of that progress. I’m a prisoner of my own body, and those 15 minutes now feel like hours.
Here’s a good analogy: imagine the engine room on the Titanic after it struck the iceberg. Water’s rushing in, and everyone’s trying to close all the burners before they get burned alive while simultaneously drown.
People say it takes time for meditation practice to take effect. Well, I’ve given it time — a lot of time — and I’ve yet to come anywhere near that so-called Zen state.
So how do I cope with stress and anxiety? What do I do to quiet my noisy, nagging brain when I just can’t take it anymore? The simple answer is it depends on the day.
1. On days when both my mind and body are anxious — I do yoga or exercise.
It may sound simple, but for people with overactive minds, sometimes having a basic activity to focus on helps turn down the head clamor. I find it’s better to do more moderate exercise that requires just enough attention to keep you focused, but not overstimulated. Yoga, of course, is even better since it usually combines mind and body awareness. If you want to go the yoga route, but you’re relatively new to the practice, check out Yoga with Adriene. She’s super down to earth, never makes you feel like you have to do a pose perfectly, and her adorable dog occasionally makes an appearance.
2. On days when I feel flooded with priorities — I write lists.
If you think this sounds pretty basic, you haven’t seen my lists. I’ll spend hours organizing and reorganizing everything I have to (or feel like I have to) do for the next six months into neat, colorful spreadsheets. I even highlight the things that are approaching deadline in light to dark red in order of importance. I have a pretty organized calendar too, but something about writing every little thing down and seeing it outlined clearly on one page gives me a sense of control in a world full of chaos.
3. On days when I need a creative outlet, but don’t feel like using my brain — I color.
Again, simple, but damn is it effective. As a writer, you’d think my creative muscle gets a regular workout, but coloring does something entirely different. Coloring allows me to zone out, because again, it takes up just enough brain space to keep those nagging worrisome thoughts at bay. So I can color and watch TV, or color in between working on an article, and all that anxious energy gets funneled down into the pretty designs. There’s a great online store called Whimsadoodles that has particularly awesome ones. You can even download some for free!
4. On days when the world overwhelmingly sucks — I shop online.
Before you judge, let me explain. I don’t buy anything, I just look at outfits from my favorite stores, and think about nothing but future moments when I could see myself wearing them. I do the same thing with international hotels. Call it my Chekhovian “when do we go to Moscow” meditation. It’s simply a way for me to tune out when the media gets a bit too alarmist to take, and imagine a better, calmer time and place.
Meditation doesn’t have to look any one way. An activity that helps you give your mind a break, whatever it may be, is worth pursuing. It could be skydiving or knitting — as long as it takes you out of your head and puts you back in your body. Keep an open mind, and you’ll find what works for you.