Meditation, and how it changed my brain

By Lora Galoyan
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Anxiety. We all know the feeling, we’ve all been in the mindset. We’ve all heard of pills and therapy as solutions, and those of us that are less lucky have also heard the most patronizing solution of them all – to “look on the bright side.” Which, as we all know, really isn’t a solution at all. People experience anxiety to different extents, but it’s horrible across the board and nearly impossible to snap out of at times.

I’m a student at UC San Diego, and along with my rigorously achieved bachelor of science in economics, I developed severe anxiety, symptomatic to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). For those who don’t know, OCD is an anxiety disorder whose hallmark characteristics include persistently cyclical and intrusive thoughts, along with compulsive rituals that are meant to alleviate anxiety. Thankfully, I’ve only suffered from the former – which can be as equally disruptive to your life as the latter, as it can lead to further conditions, like hypochondria.

I’m sure many of you have also experienced this type of anxiety, though perhaps to a lesser degree than I did. My obsessive, cyclical thoughts followed me to sleep, were there when I woke up and followed me throughout the day. They were simply out of my control, like a myriad of thoughts that were spinning around inside my head and I was absolutely powerless to stop it. The degree of stress and anxiety that resulted cannot be understated – I lost twenty pounds, lost half my hair and all the emotional stability I’d worked hard to mature to before transferring to UCSD.

It didn’t take long to realize that this was not a healthy way to live. So, like many others, I took to the internet to see what I could do to improve my situation. The first important step was understanding my condition and understanding the mechanics of what was going on inside my brain. Doing this took away its power to some extent, and allowed me to accept that it’s not who I am – it’s simply the cross I was decided to bear and a problem that I needed to manage.

Everyone knows about pills. Some people know about it all too well, since many doctors out there are all too eager to write up a prescription, and send in the next patient. Pills were a solution, of course, because that’s what they’re made to be – but they’re a solution that comes with a lot of side effects. Emotional numbness, for example, and weight gain (because of the effects these pills have on your hormones). Therapy was another alternative, albeit an expensive one that many people simply can’t afford. I looked through all these options and none of them were attractive to me for the reasons listed above, and more.

So, I landed on meditation. Mindfulness meditation specifically is known to cut off nourishment to the areas of the brain that are responsible for stress and anxiety, while enlarging those responsible for focus and heightened attention. I had tried meditation before in the past, but my initial impression with it was frustration, frustration and more frustration. It couldn’t stop me thinking, couldn’t slow down my thoughts or even help my body relax as a whole. All in all, it felt like a waste of precious time.

I couldn’t have been more wrong about that. My desperate efforts were much more researched and well-prepared the second time around that I decided to try it, and it turned out to be the only tool I ever needed to control my anxiety. Now all it takes is a single, causal impulse for me to figuratively wave my hand in the air, and cast my anxious, cyclical thoughts right out of my head. Meditation is discipline of the mind, that can and will free you of anxiety if you truly want it to.

Exclusive online content, continued from the print version of Issue 7.

Commitment

The first step is to make a commitment. Meditation will only work if you are truly committed to it, which means setting aside ten minutes every day to meditating. Once a day is considered minimum, but I started out doing it twice a day (once before bed and once in the morning), and slowly went back down to one for maintenance. Doing this bare minimum consistently for several weeks will instill the changes in your brain mentioned above, provide you with relief and (more importantly) control over your anxiety.

Positioning

Once you’ve decided to give it a go, you’ll need to get into position for it. Find a nice, quiet space where there will be no external stimuli distracting you from it. Different websites will tell you to sit in different ways, but the bottom line is that you need to be comfortable. When you sit, your arms should be hanging relaxedly at your sides, running parallel to your torso. Straighten up your back, but don’t stiffen it – your spine has a natural curvature and you should embrace it while meditating. Finally, your chin should be tilted downward, instead of staring straight ahead in a rigid position. You can keep your eyes open or closed throughout each session, that one’s up to you. If you’re going to keep your eyes open, then look downward and six feet ahead of you, maintaining your relaxed position. I prefer to do both opened and closed, and simply take turns depending on what feels right.

Setting a Timer and Getting Started

Next, you’ll want to set a timer. 10 minutes at minimum, but I prefer to set it at 10 minutes and 15 seconds – the additional 15 seconds are intended to give you a bit of time to get in touch with your breath (which I’ll get into next). Be sure to set a soothing alarm for yourself, so that it doesn’t shock you out of the meditative state. Over time, you can increase this amount to 15 minutes, 20 minutes and more.

Meditating

The biggest misconception about meditation is that you’re meant to stop thinking. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While you’re meditating, you will experience thoughts, feelings, and pretty much everything else that’s bothering you throughout the day. What meditation aims to do, is to help you detach yourself from the associated emotions that cause your anxiety. So, if a persistent thought or idea is causing you a lot of stress, meditation will help you detach yourself emotionally, so that it no longer bothers you.

Take the first 15 seconds of your time to get in touch with your breath. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth – listening to it intently. Your breath is an anchor to the current moment and all problems can be dealt with at a later time. When your mind begins to stray (which it will), gently bring it back to your breath. That’s why it’s there, to give you something to draw your attention back to. So when a thought comes up, simply label it “a thought,” and gently push it aside – returning your attention to your breath in the meanwhile. With series of thoughts or emotions that seem to reel out of your control, simply let them flow to the end and then label what just happened: thinking. And, once more, return to your breath.

Perceiving Your Breath

This is paramount to meditating successfully. The correct perception of your breath will be the key to successful meditation. As stated earlier, your breath is an anchor to the current moment. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, it’s always there for you. So when you’re meditating, bear in mind that your breath is an indicator that you are a living being in your environment. A part of the environment, just like every other object in there with you, and the anxious thoughts present in the room are enclosed inside your head – with no relevance to the safe, immediate moment. It may help to open your eyes and imagine looking down at yourself from above, to visualize your physical body as a part of the perfectly safe, quiet environment surrounding you – where the only sound you can hear, is your own living breath.

Finishing thoughts

When your timer goes off, start with small movements. Wiggle your fingers, wiggle your toes and stretch your wrists a bit. Big, sudden movements could cause dizziness and nausea, so be weary of that.

Meditation requires several weeks to have notable changes in the brain, but it only takes a session or two to gain preliminary control of your anxiety. You will become detached from the emotions that burden you and you will be able to push aside the thoughts that cause you stress. Having control over your own mind will quickly become second nature and you’ll need little to no effort to do it.

However, while control is important, the biggest thing I hope you gain from meditation is patience and kindness toward yourself. Whatever it is you’re going through, whether it’s depression or anxiety, is something you can learn to manage. We all have our crosses to bear, so be kind and remind yourself that you are not broken or damaged – this is simply a problem that you can and will overcome.

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