By Ingrid Worth
I have always been a somewhat anxious person, prone to overthinking small decisions and spending hours worrying about relatively trivial events and assignments. I felt overwhelmed and stressed when busy, and impatient and restless when I had a break. Like many others, the past year only increased my tension, leaving me feeling unmoored, as if I had lost my balance and could trip over at any moment. Last year, I entered my second year of college with record high levels of worry and few effective coping tools. I tried to escape my feelings of anxiety by rewatching my favorite movies on Netflix or spending too much time reading the news, both of which often left me more stressed once I realized how much time had gone by, with my homework still unfinished. I knew about meditation and had attempted to try it in the past with mixed results. In part, my problem with meditation was that it seemed too simple, too easy. I am accustomed to solving problems by doing something, so sitting on the floor and counting my breath has always seemed somewhat pointless. However, as the second semester started, my stress reached a breaking point and, realizing I needed to increase my coping skills, I resolved to give meditation another try.
I was far from alone in seeking out meditation as a refuge from anxiety, depression, or low energy. According to a 2018 survey from the US Department of Health and Human Services, at least 14 percent of Americans have tried meditation and the number of people meditating in the US has quadrupled since 2012 . Such numbers are hardly surprising. A 2010 study on the benefits of meditation followed 351 full time working adults as they practiced meditation for 20 minutes each day for eight weeks, recording their stress levels and mental health . The study found that those who regularly practiced meditation tended to report lower levels of stress and negative mental health and, somewhat surprisingly, higher levels of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence, which refers to the ability to have empathy for others as well as being able to effectively cope with one’s own emotions, may have increased due to the introspection and self-reflection involved in meditation . Such self-awareness increases the ability to regulate emotional processes and concentration. Bolstered by the millions of others meditating alongside me and the research espousing its benefits, I began meditating for ten minutes a day.
The results were far from immediate. It took at least three weeks of solid meditation practice before I noticed any benefits. I began by meditating for five minutes, timing myself with a stopwatch and focusing on my breath. Throughout my first meditation sessions my mind wandered, I felt restless, and all I mostly thought of my to-do list. I was annoyed with my unruly mind, which refused to empty itself and instead bombarded me with thoughts. I wanted to stop within the first week and return to my usual coping mechanisms of Netflix and Hulu, but instead I decided to try guided meditations with an app, rather than silently practicing on my own.
According to a 2020 study on meditation, loving kindness meditations, which introduce elements of self-compassion and gratitude while maintaining focus on the breath, are one of the most effective forms of meditation for bolstering self-awareness and acceptance . The study compared 414 meditators with 414 non-meditators on aspects such as mental health, life outlook, and self-compassion. Those who regularly practiced meditation reported finding more meaning in life as well as better mental health and higher rates of self-compassion than those who did not regularly meditate . Self-compassion and meditation tie closely together as both focus on recognizing difficulties, accepting them, and avoiding harsh self-criticism. I decided to continue meditating regularly, but instead focused on using meditations that evoked self-compassion, gratitude, or loving kindness. I found several helpful meditations for free on apps such as Insight Timer, Calm, The Mindfulness App, and YouTube.
Like most forms of therapy, meditation was something I needed to practice regularly in order to feel any benefits. After about a month of consistent practice, I began to crave my meditation sessions and I noticed myself beginning to focus on my breath during moments of high anxiety. I found that by practicing meditations in times of low stress, I was better able to manage my anxiety in times of higher stress. I still try to practice meditating for 10-20 minutes each day. My racing mind never completely quieted, but I realized that was the point. To truly have a blank mind would probably take a lifetime of meditation. Instead, I learned to acknowledge and accept my thoughts, then allow them to float by like clouds in the sky.
Ingrid Worth is a NAMI Washtenaw County volunteer and a student at the University of Michigan majoring in Psychology. She is passionate about mental health advocacy and awareness, particularly among students. In her free time, she enjoys spending time outdoors, reading, and hiking.
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