Anxiety Doesn’t Feel Like Anxiety

For a while last year, especially after a head injury, I started feeling like my whole world was falling apart. Like everything was fragile and everything was dangerous. I felt terrible doubts and fears about so many things I’ve trusted and depended on for years. At first I really thought something was terribly wrong–like my life was a lie and like everything was a day away from coming crashing down around me.

Turned out I was just having anxiety. The world was no more dangerous than it had been before, people were no less trustworthy, everything was going to be okay.

I think one of the toughest things about having anxiety, though, is that–when you’re having it–it doesn’t FEEL like “anxiety.” Even if you know you have it.

When you’re NOT feeling anxious for a while, you can understand what you’ve been going through, and you can say “I was just having anxiety.”

But when you ARE anxious, all those fears and doubts and threats are VERY, VERY REAL.

When you are experiencing anxiety, “just having anxiety” isn’t a thing.

Just because something is “just anxiety” doesn’t mean it won’t feel 100% real. But hope is in the flip side: Just because something feels 100% real doesn’t mean it’s not just anxiety speaking. You may still be totally safe.

Understanding this doesn’t necessarily solve anything. But it helps me be compassionate with myself, and it gives me a hopeful perspective to hold on tight when the waves come: It will feel sickeningly real, but even that is okay.

It also helps me understand others who may experience anxiety, a lot or a little. It helps me to appreciate and respect the sincerity and gravity of their feelings. And I think I now have a better idea than I used to of how to be there for them–to hold them a little tighter when their own waves come and they’re trying to keep from drowning–to just stick with them in their episodes of darkness and walk with them toward the light at the end of the tunnel.

I hope it helps you, too.

7 Ways Meditating Has Helped Me

Jon Kabat-Zinn - Time By Yourself

I love meditation.

But I feel like that’s a strange sentence. It’s kind of like saying “I love sports.” There are a million different kinds of meditation: Body scan, mindfulness, mantra, loving kindness, transcendental, breathing, visualization, contemplative, affirmations, etc. Meditations ranges from the very scientific to the very spiritual, from the very basic to the very ritualistic, and from the very thought/idea-filled to the very quiet/empty.

There are also so many different purposes in meditation: Releasing stress, freeing yourself from constant judgments, slowing down, finding peace, appreciating life, building confidence, accepting yourself and the way things are, feeling present and thankful, increasing physical or mental health, and the list goes on.

So to say I love meditation is to make a very broad statement. I’m not sure I want to narrow it down much, though, because I haven’t yet found a type of meditation that, when truly embraced, doesn’t seem to provide some good and some peace.

I personally have done more mindfulness meditation, breath awareness, mantras, and contemplative meditations than other kinds, so that may be worth knowing when I share a few of the ways meditation has helped me. But at the same time: I’m not you. I encourage you to try (“try” might be the worst word to use about meditating) various kinds meditation with an open mind and see if one helps you. Keeping in mind that many kinds of meditation will not feel like they “work” for a very long time, if ever. In fact, for some kinds, not having to “work” or “make a difference” is the exact point.

I’m no guru or yogi and it’s not like I spend hours every day meditating. But meditation has become a pretty regular part of my life, and I’ve found that it has helped me in more than a few ways. Here are just seven ways it’s helped me that I hope might pique your interest:

 

1. Releasing physical tension and pain.

I’m starting with an interesting one, because I have found a lot of peoples’ experience with “spiritual” and “out there” things has turned them off to meditation: It’s too weird. It is weird, but it can help even the most down-to-earth realist (which used to be me).

Meditation has actually made a significant difference for me with chronic headaches and muscle tension. Like many others, I “carry my stress” in my neck and shoulders. Massages and hot showers help because they relax tense muscles. In the same way, meditating can help by relaxing your tense muscles. Body scans and deep breathing have been especially helpful for me in calming and relaxing tense areas, and they often provide quick relief. Other meditations that help with developing peace and acceptance also provide more lasting help in relieving the stress that causes physical tension.

2. Stress relief and management.

People have a million different strategies for “stress management.” Stress seems to be a universal part of the human experience. For me, meditation has done more than almost anything else in the world to release stress–both in the moment when worked up or anxious, and longer term through regular practice.

Often mantras, chants, and other similar meditations which reflect on a hopeful, calming, relieving truth or idea really help to reduce stress. What has been especially helpful for me in this area, though, is mindfulness meditation. Jon Kabat-Zinn has created an entire program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) that has been used in work places, hospitals, and more to help people reduce stress, which in turn leads to many other health benefits. One of the key aspects of mindfulness meditation is the incredibly simple allowing and accepting of things, relaxing from the constant strain of wishing everything was different.

For those of you who experience times of intense stress (so, all of you), various forms of meditation can be very helpful in the moment to calm down and regain clarity.

3. Getting through anxiety

I’ve dealt this last year with a lot of anxiety, and mindfulness meditations, deep breathing, mantras, and guided meditations have definitely been in the top three or four things that have helped me deal healthily with and find hope and peace during anxious times. I know anxiety can be a very dark and scary and draining experience, and I hope that if you sometimes experience it, you’ll try some meditation for yourself. I’d encourage you to look up some guided meditations Thich Nhat Hanh or Jon Kabat-Zinn and try it–see if it gives you a little break and helps you find some peace and strength in your anxiety.

4. Getting and staying in touch with myself.

All of life is crammed full of noise, ideas and thoughts and emotions being forced on you, people trying to influence you, events shaping your mood and impacting your mental health. I bet you totally get when I’m saying when I say it’s all to easy to lose touch with yourself.

Meditation can be extremely helpful when it comes to regaining self-awareness and staying in touch with yourself–your emotions, your dreams, your desires, and your own thoughts. Body scans and contemplative meditations have been very helpful for myself in this area. A lot of people think that meditation is about trying to get rid of all thoughts, but many types are not. In fact, some meditations are all about providing space for your mind to wander and think thoughts it doesn’t usually have the time or safety to think. One of the most helpful practices I’ve ever incorporated into my day-to-day life is sitting alone in silence for ten minutes with no agenda, just allowing my mind the time and space to run free.

5. Noticing the little things.

Meditation is a really great way to slow down your mind. It is hard not to get carried away in the fast pace of daily busyness, constantly having to worry about a hundred things and keep track of a hundred more. One of the healthiest, happiest things you can do is slow down enough to start noticing and appreciating the little things around you again. Meditating has really helped me with this.

When you just be quiet and sit in silence, your mind is sometimes able to calm down further and further, to let go of some of its intense stress about the past or about the future. And then, at least in my experience, the Present around you suddenly comes to life. You remember that there is a giant world full of beautiful present moments all around you, every day, a world that you don’t usually see. And the more frequently you get quiet enough to see it, the easier it becomes to find.

6. Developing the ability to quickly re-center or re-focus when needed day to day.

Somewhat related to the last one about finding the little things in this present moment, getting in touch with the Present also helps find perspective that we are too often missing. Slowing down and stepping out of the mind’s busy cycle of manufactured stress offers helpful reminders that everything really is okay, that life is more than our current chaos and worries, and that we are safer than we feel.

The more frequently you visit this place of perspective in quiet meditation, getting practice stepping outside of the constant rushing mental stress cycle, the easier it becomes to access this perspective and peace at any time you need it during crazy day-to-day life. The more regularly I have practiced meditation, the easier it is for me to refocus and regain a big picture perspective when I’m busy stressing about little chaotic life things. Stress has a way of completely blinding you, and meditation can help you to keep a clearer head.

7. Becoming more compassionate toward myself and others.

Meditation has a way of making you feel very deeply human. It strips away outer layers of styles and plans and accomplishments and messages and everything else that we see and judge every day. Mindfulness meditation particularly has really helped me accept things just the way they are without needing to constantly be judging–myself or others. It is an active practice of observing without judging, of fully accepting. Learning this and practicing this makes being compassionate to yourself or to other people very natural.

Mindfulness meditation doesn’t change life. Life remains as fragile and unpredictable as ever. Meditation changes the heart’s capacity to accept life as it is.” – Sylvia Boorstein

 

So what do you think? Have you tried any kinds of meditation? What has it done for you?

I hope that if you haven’t already, you give meditation a shot. Or that if you’ve tried and been discouraged by distraction or invisible results, you’ll give it another shot. I hope that if you try meditation, you find it helps you as much as it has helped me. If you want any suggestions or pointers on where to start, let me know!

Do you need to do some scrubbing?

I’m going to have an embarrassing moment of honesty here and say I legit have had a really terrible grasp on American history for most of my life. To the point where I couldn’t tell you whether Martin Luther King Jr was an activist in the 1980s or the 1920s. Well actually, I had a pretty good guess: It must have been at least as far back as, say, the 30s, because the civil rights war was soundly won long, long, long ago in a distant memory.

So yeah. Let’s just chalk it up to “I’m really bad with dates.”

In school I studied a lot of history–even a lot of early US history. But somehow I didn’t grasp much of what went on in America from the civil war through 9/11. I’m working on it now. I’m halfway through William Chafe’s book The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II, and my jaw has hit the floor quite a few times.

So, turns out Rosa Parks got arrested not that long ago for not giving up her seat for a white person on a bus. I guess I always thought that was “like a hundred years ago.” Nope. And Dr. King was assassinated only 50 years ago this year.

I guess I figured we Americans must have had all this equality stuff figured out (at least per law and official doctrine) by the time we took issue with Nazism in Germany for mistreating Jewish people because they weren’t built like the preferred Aryan ideal. But we didn’t. Some of the details of our recent history are pretty shocking. And not just where African-Americans were concerned.

Most of my life, I had heard that, despite a few crazy racist southerners here and there waving their confederate flags, racism and discrimination and systematic oppression were mostly gone, and that all the activist noise was just people holding on too long to injustices that their great, great grandfathers saw.

But 50 years is not a long time! I’m more than halfway there. That means a lot of my friends and family remember those days–when they shared the city with other human souls who were refused service at restaurants and businesses because they were born with the wrong skin color. Where a lot of America struggled desperately not to comply with judicial rulings and legislation made to protect colored people and ensure their integration into society as fully equal fellow humans.

Suddenly I see so many things differently!

A lot more current activist movements make a lot more sense. And I am quite sure we have not made nearly as full and healthy a recovery from racism as I learned growing up. I think I understand so many more people now, people I’ve seen, people I’ve worked with, people I’ve tried to help as a manager in past jobs.

And I’m reminded of one of my all-time favorite quotes, attributed to Isaac Asimov: “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”

 

And that’s just a specific brand of discrimination. What about our treatment of over a hundred thousand Japanese who we incarcerated in our own concentration camps 70 years ago? Or what about the very weird and disturbing treatment and brainwashing our society promoted in the not so distant past of women regarding their roles in society and their purpose in life.

And these are just assumptions I’ve had to unlearn around recent American history.

What about things I have always assumed about my co-workers and where they’re coming from? Or the motives you’ve prejudged of that friend trying to sell me on their network marketing product? Or the obvious disdain we’re all supposed to have for those silly “self-help” books and “motivational speakers” who are just trying to get rich off gullible people? Or the crazy beliefs and weird religious rituals from eastern religions–like your friend who keeps talking about his weird meditation stuff? Or the fact that you’re obviously supposed to go to college, get a car, buy a house, and climb a corporate ladder? Or even things as personal as “Oh, I could never be a reader” or “I could never be a runner” before I’ve ever ever really tried?

 

The point is this: Over long, weird, narrowly-focused lives we have all picked up hundreds and thousands of little (or big) assumptions that color our world in big ways, ways that we might not realize, and ways that we rarely if ever question.

And those assumptions, prejudices, and misunderstandings can be blinding us from insights and opportunities. They can blind us to the reality others around us are experiencing. They can automatically turn us against a co-worker or family member, leave us always on edge, and keep us from fulfilling relationships or effective teamwork.

Until we finally stop and think: Wait… is that REALLY true?

 

Do you ever question your assumptions?

What is something you always assumed that you’ve recently had your mind changed about in a life-altering way?

And if you had to look at your life right now and take a guess at what is a big assumption you really need to reconsider today if you want to take the next step in your personal development–what might it be?

Isaac Asimov - Assumptions windows on world

Life’s Not All a Concert

I’ve had a dream since childhood of performing piano in front of a crowd. I imagine playing so beautifully and masterfully that it captivates the listeners.

What’s an impressive skill or feat you dream of? What would your big talent show moment look like?

I daydream of being fluent in a bunch of languages, too. Of singing an epic solo in a concert. Of being a published author or a successful public speaker. Of being a black belt in a martial art. Of winning a race. Of being a good dancer.

 

If you’ve ever seriously practiced piano (or worse, been in a house with someone else practicing), you know it gets repetitive at best–downright annoying at worst. To learn a piece really well takes patient, slow repetition. Today I came to a little part–just a measure long–that was just so tricky for some reason! It didn’t look hard on paper, but it just wouldn’t flow! I spent over 20 minutes practicing those 4 beats–slowly, quickly, left hand, right hand, all together–getting it right ten times and then suddenly losing it again.

Point is: Glamorous doesn’t start out glamorous.

 

Being a concert pianist is epic. But becoming a concert pianist takes a lot of very un-epic moments. And by a lot, I mean hours and hours, weeks and weeks, years and years.

Progress can happen very slowly. Success is rarely immediate or even quick. Mastery doesn’t happen easily.

And I think that’s why we DON’T go for the things we really want. It goes something like this. . . .

You dream of being fit and strong, of feeling confident and healthy. You feel inspired and you start going for it. You make a plan. You get excited. You start eating healthy and working out. Healthy doesn’t always taste great. Pizza sounds delicious. You’re tired. Planks don’t feel good. It’s been a week and you don’t see much of a difference. A month goes by and you’ve got some momentum, but you really miss taking it easy and eating all the sugar and dairy. You don’t really know how to take your workouts to the next level. You don’t know how to work on this muscle or use that machine. It’s too hard. It’s taking too long.

We give up on our dreams for 3 big reasons: DISCOURAGEMENT. DIFFICULTY. BOREDOM.

But those big obvious reasons disguise themselves as insignificant little moments: I can practice this part of the piece later. . . . I can go to the gym tomorrow. . . . I can cut this run short. . . . I’ve studied long enough for today. . . . This blog post can wait. . . .

 

The flip side is that finally “getting there” is AMAZING! Living your dream IS glamorous! Just close your eyes and imagine it.

Every time I master a beautiful piano piece, the unglamorous hours of repetition suddenly make sense. The beauty and happiness and pride make all the work more than worth it. . . . Every once in a while, one of my blog posts resonates with a ton of people and the feeling of helping–of making a difference–makes all the unconfident weeks of writing and scrapping and re-writing and wandering and writing again–all worth it.

 

Life is slow and difficult. It’s not all a concert. Most of it is the nitty-gritty, “boring” work to prepare for those concerts. But those concerts can be breathtakingly epic!

Do you love your dream enough to see it through?

 

piano#patience #youcandoit #instagramvsreality

7 Creative Strategies for New (or Frustrated) Readers

“I’m not much of a reader” may be high up there on the list of most commonly spoken phrases in the English language. So much so, in fact, that I do a double take when someone actually tells me they enjoy reading.

Last week I blogged about some amazing benefits to becoming a reader, but I understand that for most non-readers, that just sounds a little bit like saying, “Here’s what you can’t have.” Reading can be difficult, frustrating, and time-consuming, especially the busier life gets with work, relationships, and other “adult” things.

Type “I want to read but” into Google’s search bar and it immediately drops down enough suggestions–“I get bored…I can’t focus…I don’t know what to read…I can’t”–that it’s apparent lots of people want to read but feel they can’t. If that’s you, you’re in good company. I’ve been a frustrated reader, too. Still am sometimes. So I’d like to share several ways I’ve learned to make the most of reading, without burning out.

1. Read variety. Google’s very top “I want to read but…” suggestion is “…I get bored.” If that’s you, trust me–you’re not the only one. Sometimes–for new or established readers, there’s a really educational book someone recommended that may be long and dry. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t push through it. Put it down for the day and pick something else up until you’re ready to go back. At the moment I’m reading/listening to a book about the physiological response to long-term stress, a book about mindfulness meditation, and a novel about a band of miners trying to survive the harsh winter of the Colorado Rockies. If you want to read, but need a break from the tough stuff, find a fun book. Your reading muscles will get stronger.

2. Read in small doses. Like any “perfectionist,” I dream of this big day where I get to really do justice to a project or goal–like spend an entire afternoon reading on the couch. And that means I frequently put off reading–especially starting a new book–until I feel like I have “enough time.” News flash–you don’t have enough time! There will always be other things to do. The “right time to read” is a fantasy. But if you read for 10 minutes today, 5 minutes tomorrow, another 15 the next day–before you know it, you’ll have completed a book. If you wait for “enough time,” you probably won’t. Reading is also a lot easier in small doses (especially when you’re just starting). You can stay more focused and understand more. And starting out with long reading sessions can backfire when you later feel you can’t live up to that standard anymore. Small doses is a great way to start–and a great way to get out of a rut.

3. Read (and re-read) slowly enough to really understand. This may be the most helpful thing I’ve learned about reading. I think we’ve all shared this experience: You’re reading along, and all of a sudden you realize you have no idea what you’ve been reading for the last 5 minutes. It’s so discouraging! I’ve learned that if you commit to really comprehending every single sentence, you’ll get so much more out of what you’re reading. The catch is, you will read (and re-read) VERY SLOWLY at first! And that’s okay. When you don’t understand a sentence, read it again–maybe look back at its context. When you realize your mind has wandered, back up to the last paragraph you remember comprehending and try again (even if it was three pages ago). I have literally re-read the same paragraph at least ten times in a row because of distractions. Like a muscle at the gym–when you take the time to train it the right way, it will get better and faster. Eventually, focusing will be a whole lot easier. Remember: The goal of reading is not to get to the end of the book. Take it as slow as you need. Better to fully digest one meaningful paragraph today than waste an hour mindlessly scanning page after page.

4. Look up every word or concept you don’t know. It’s can be very frustrating trying to read some academic book full of big words or concepts about business or science or politics, etc. Sometimes I’ll just read right through and hope that eventually I get what it was talking about. Problem is–the more you skip over words and concepts you don’t know, the more confused and disengaged you’ll get. The good news is, it’s never been easier to learn as you go. Keep your smartphone with you, and whenever a word (e.g. elucubrate) or a concept (e.g. liquidity ratio) sails over your head, punch it into Google or Dictionary.com, learn it, and re-read the sentence. Don’t just keep reading and end up lost, take a quick Google break and add to your vocabulary and education.

5. Write down big ideas you learn and review them later. I think that we get more out of reading than we realize. Even the most experienced reader can get to the end of a book and feel like they can’t adequately recap everything they just learned. But I think all that stuff has taken root down inside you–at least if you’ve read slowly enough to comprehend it–and helps to shape your thinking. However, it can be very encouraging once you’ve finished reading–a chapter or an entire book–to look back and see what you’ve learned. It helps to cement valuable concepts in your memory and it encourages you to keep learning. I get the most out of reading when I write down big points (or little points that really resonated with me). You don’t have to write thoroughly. Sometimes I’ll even just jot down a tag-word along with the page number so I can go back and review it later.

6. Read, then practice, then read, then practice. Remember that reading is not, in itself, the end game. In his book, The Slight Edge, Jeff Olson talks about the learning cycle: First you learn a concept or theory, then you go put it into practice and learn it even better from experience. Then you go back and read about it again with experience under your belt that gives you perspective and context for your reading. Then you try it again in the real world. And repeat. A good example to consider: You can read lots of great books about communicating at work, but if you don’t put yourself out there and implement what you’re learning, they won’t do you any good. So you read a book about communication, then you start opening up more with your boss. It goes okay, but not great. So you go back and read more about it, and now it makes more sense, and you realize what parts you got right and what parts you got wrong. So you try communicating with your boss again. This time it goes a little better, but it’s not where it should be. So you go back to learn what you need to tweak. And the cycle goes on. “Knowledge without practice is useless. Practice without knowledge is dangerous.” – attr. Confucius

7. If all else fails, try audiobooks. Some people find that reading hurts their eyes or gives them a headache. Some people truly have overflowing schedules and can’t find a minute away from work and family to sit and read. Don’t give up! Try audiobooks! Most of us who find ourselves too busy to read spend lots of time commuting to and from work, family, or social activities. You can find plenty of great books on CD at your local library, or online audiobook memberships to try. My personal favorite is the Hoopla app–it’s totally free and all you need is a library card. It allows you to borrow 5 titles monthly. One of my favorite features is a little button you can hit that bookmarks the exact second you’re listening to so you can go back later to review it or write down ideas. Audiobooks not only are easier with a packed schedule, they’re also easier to not put down and walk away: Someone is just reading to you and all you have to do is let them. Try it on your commutes–you’ll be amazed how many books will fit into a year of driving to and from work.

I hope that some or all of these suggestions help you start (or keep) reading without burning out. And I hope trying these help you grow more personally from the books you read. If you have any other suggestions for making the most of the practice, please share what’s been working for you in the comments so the rest of us can benefit! Good luck!

~

“Knowledge without practice is useless. Practice without knowledge is dangerous.” – Confucius