M. Alda Gomez Otero
Can meditation help with my health anxiety?
Yes, no doubt. How? Well, let’s see if I can explain it in a simple way.
What is #health anxiety?
We are living unprecedented times. We have been asked to stay at home and reduce our contact with other human beings. That must be the most unnatural thing for us to do, as we are social beings by nature. In the news, we get statistics about the number of deaths in the different countries due to this new virus. We are alarmed when we see drastic measures being taken by the different governments and we see our death toll rise exponentially. We become worried because coronavirus is threatening our survival and that of our loved ones.
Our nervous system was designed to survive threats faced by our prehistoric ancestors. Our societies have evolved enormously, but our bodies are still trying to catch up. A few thousand years is nothing in the history of humanity. For that reason, our bodies still have some prehistoric characteristics. It is as if our software had not been updated for centuries.
The stress response
When we face a threat in our current world, our bodies are expecting a prehistoric threat, such as an attack from a lion. That is why our stress/anxiety response (also called fight or flight) creates a set of responses in our bodies which aim at channelling all the energy in our bodies to run away or fight this dangerous predator. Some of these responses include elevated heart rate, shallow breath, tension in the limbs, less blood circulation to the brain, reduced cognitive abilities. We need to run for our life, so our logical mind and other vital functions are deprived of their energy so that our legs can run faster. When the energy gets released by running or fighting, our bodies will replace the stress/anxiety response by the relaxation response. We ran away and we are now safe. We can calm down.
Currently, we are not facing a lion, but a potential health threat. We do not really need as much energy, as the danger is not imminent. We are not going to die if we don’t start running or fighting an invisible enemy. Our bodies are creating all the energy we need to run for our lives, but we are stuck at home, not being able to release that amount of energy. Because this energy is not released, our bodies continue having the stress response signs of activation, waiting for a signal that the threat is over. Sometimes we interpret those signs of activation in our bodies as a threat, and the whole cycle starts again, creating a loop of constant activation of your nervous system. This activation is called anxiety.
Stopping our stress response
We need to find a way to communicate with our bodies and tell them that we don’t need to start running and we are safe. We are not in danger of perishing in the following minutes, as our bodies believe. Because our logical mind is not thinking straight because of the stress response, we need to find a way of calming our bodies. If our bodies calm down, our mind will calm down, and our logical mind can then take over and do the rest, telling the other systems in the brain that the threat is over.
But the threat is not over, you might say. The threat is out there, yes, that is true. But your body believes it is going to kill you immediately. That needs to change. Your health anxiety needs to be transformed into a grounded concern for your health instead of the imminent sense of doom that you are experiencing. This is how meditation can help. Many other things can help too. Anything that relaxes your body and your nervous system will send a message to your brain saying that you are safe.
Types of meditation
I am sure that when you are anxious about your health or any other issue, the last thing that you want to do is sitting down in a still position with your worrying thoughts. But this is not the only type of meditation. So let’s have a look at other types of meditation that may be useful for you.
This is a good type of meditation as a complement or on its own. A “mantra” is a sentence that is being said continuously and can have an impact on yourself. It is believed by practitioners to have psychological and/or spiritual powers. A simple mantra, such as “I am safe” repeated every time you feel anxious can reinforce the idea that the threat is not present. You can create your own mantra. It can be anything that resonates with you and helps you calm down.
Tai chi & qigong
Tai chi & qigong are exercises practised as a moving meditation. They are ancient Chinese practices that help you calm down your mind by moving your body in a gentle way. Tai chi is a martial art, so the movements are based on blocks, kicks, punches, etc. Qigong is also called the Chinese yoga. The exercises are done standing, and they tend to emulate nature. Usual movement names for both are related to animals, such as white crane spreads its wings, or dragon flying.
You can practice mindfulness by washing up, cooking or brushing your teeth. It is not so much about what you do, but how you do it. If you are able to maintain your full attention to what you are doing, you are being mindful. Mindfulness will increase the activation in your prefrontal cortext, area of your brain that will help you manage your emotions and stop your stress response.
You can do silent meditation sitting in the lotus position, or on a chair, or standing. Taoists also have a laying down posture for their meditation practices. Some meditations can be guided, when someone is guiding you with their voice, and you follow their instructions. Others, you can direct your attention to your breath, or to your body. Others will hold a mandala in front of you, and you will contemplate the design while trying to keep your mind calm. The aim is to find the calmness beyond the thoughts.
There are many types of meditation, and they can all help you at this time with your health anxiety. So please keep an open mind. There are numerous podcasts, youtube videos, and apps with guided meditations, movements, and mantras. Go and explore. Have fun finding the ones that resonate with your body. Please bear in mind that meditation is a practice, and as such, it requires regular commitment so that you can start seeing the benefits. Invest five minutes of your time everyday to your favourite meditation and see what happens. Who hasn’t got five minutes? Keep safe and good luck!