Anita was feeling overwhelmed. Work stress, money issues, family problems. It was all just felt like a little too much sometimes. “If I don’t find a way to deal with this stress, I’m going to totally lose it!” she exclaimed. Haven’t we all felt that way sometimes?
In addition to looking at ways to work on some of the problems she was dealing with, we needed to find some basic stress management tools to help her survive and thrive in spite of the inevitable problems we can’t necessarily change.
I asked Anita if she had ever tried meditation. She replied that she had tried it before, but her thoughts kept wandering, so she believed she just couldn’t do it. Her understanding of meditation was that she should be able to clear her mind and not think about things. Since she couldn’t stop her mind from getting distracted and thinking about all kinds of things, she felt she had failed. In truth, we can’t really make our minds stop thinking. Just try having no thoughts for even thirty seconds! We will, of course, have distracting thoughts, but that doesn’t mean we have failed.
Here’s a very simple place to start if you would like to try meditation: Focus on the breath; when (not if) your mind gets distracted and wanders, simply bring your attention back to your breath. Don’t get mad at yourself for being distracted; that just means you’re normal! Maybe you can stay focused on your breath for one, two, or three breaths before your mind wanders. That’s okay; just come back to the breath. Don’t follow that train of thought; just keep coming back. Gradually you start to realize that your thoughts don’t control you. Now you are starting to get somewhere!
We know that in the brain, meditation quiets the amygdala and activates the hippocampus. Why is this important? The hippocampus is important for learning and memory. It naturally shrinks with age, but meditation has been shown to activate the hippocampus. (Both meditation and aerobic exercise have been shown to plump up the hippocampus and help us fight that natural shrinkage.) This is a good thing! At the same time, meditation calms the amygdala. What does the amygdala do? It’s our internal “Chicken Little”. It is constantly on the alert for danger. We, as other living creatures, have been designed to have a powerful alerting response to danger. Picture the gazelle that senses a predator in the tall grass: instant alert, muscle tension and increased heart rate so it can run for it’s life if it needs to. Then, when it becomes apparent that the alarm was false, the gazelle puts its head back down and resumes grazing, calm again. The big difference between us and the gazelle is that our brains are bombarded with so much stress during the course of an average day; our amygdala tend to fire over and over again, without getting enough of the “all’s well, let’s go back to grazing” calm. Also, unlike the gazelle, we react not only to real potential dangers, but we also worry about all kinds of possible dangers that we imagine might happen in the future. This leads to chronic stress symptoms. We often spend too much time with our Chicken Little amygdala's firing and not enough time “grazing in the grass”.
So give it a try if you like. Take a few minutes, close your eyes, direct your attention to your breath, or some other calming focus, and give yourself a mental break. This is, of course, only scratching the surface of what you can do with meditation, and there are many other ways to meditate, but it’s a good place to start. Your body and mind will appreciate the break.
Dr. Catherine Aisner is a Psychologist in South Lake Tahoe, helping individuals and couples improve the quality of their lives. She can be reached at 530-541-6696 or online at www.CatherineAisner.com.