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There’s nothing like a full-blown panic attack. Except maybe a heart attack. But if you’re a panic attack survivor, you’d swear – at least the first time it happens – the grim reaper is on his way.
It’s terrifying when you can’t breathe.
But the other aspects of anxiety are awful, too. The constant fear or feeling of dread. The rumination. The apathy that can kick in. The paralysis. The isolation.
Anxiety can really take the joy out of life.
A few months ago, I listened to a podcast (http://www.onbeing.org/program/james-doty-the-magic-shop-of-the-brain/8397) that has literally changed my life and my relationship with anxiety. I consider Krista Tippett’s interview with Dr. James Doty (http://ccare.stanford.edu/about/people/ccare-staff/#146), a neurosurgeon, my salvation. I urge you to take a listen if you suffer from anxiety.
But, if you don’t have the 45 minutes, let me sum it up for you very quickly: the key to loosening anxiety’s grip on us is meditation.
The amygdala – responsible for our “flight or fight” response – gets a good workout when anxiety hits. Meditation calms the amygdala down. And over the course of time – say, consistent meditation, 15 minutes a day for just two weeks – the amygdala begins to atrophy.
Let me say it again: the amygdala. Begins. To atrophy.
Take a broken arm. Restrict its movement, and after that cast comes off, it has to work hard to strengthen again because of muscular atrophy.
The more anxious you are, the more of a workout your amygdala is getting. Take the time to calm it down, it loses some of its power. Keep working at calming it down, it will begin to atrophy. Dr. Doty says just two weeks of practice leads to a measureable decrease in size and an increase in calm.
As I listened to Dr. Doty explain this to Krista, I couldn’t help but be struck by how much sense this made.
Around the same time I happened upon the podcast, I was reading Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris. He writes about the virtue of meditation, and – get this – offers a guided meditation podcast. He offers two of them, actually: one for 9 minutes (https://soundcloud.com/samharrisorg/mindfulness-meditation-9) and one for 26 minutes (https://soundcloud.com/samharrisorg/mindfulness-meditation-26).
I started with the 9 minute one. It was hard. And I am not kidding about this: it was incredibly hard. But I kept at it. And by day five I began to notice a calmness. After 10 days, I tried the 26 minute meditation.
Since then, I’ve played around with different online guided meditations. Sometimes I do them in bed before I fall asleep, but most often I do them in car in the parking lot at my work before I head in for the day.
I’m not as regular a meditator as I should be, considering my relationship with anxiety. But, I’ve done it enough to notice a lasting change.
I’ve done the pills. I’ve alternated Paxil and Prozac and Xanax. They were tremendous gifts through a number of periods in my life when my functioning plummeted to the deepest abyss. But they were, for me, a short term solution to what can be a life-long struggle.
I have no problems taking medication for anxiety, and I am indeed a staunch advocate for it. These psychotropic drugs saved me in every way imaginable. But as my lot in life improved, my need for them waned. I fully recognize how lucky I am in this regard.
My whole hope in sharing this particular blog is only this: I had the good fortune of stumbling upon a podcast one day while driving to see my therapist. She, too, was excited to learn this research on meditation and its correlation to an atrophied amygdala. And it has actually improved my functioning and sense of wellness in living.
And if you suffer from anxiety as well, I simply thought this just might be worth your while.