Have you ever experienced severe anxiety—a sense of panic, a racing heart, shortness of breath? Maybe you have dealt with sleep issues as your brain obsesses on stressors, unable to rest as your body tenses, your stomach churns.
I have been there more than once. Anxiety made me feel weak and even ashamed of myself. I have watched so many women I love and care about find themselves in that place, as well. Whether it happens to you or someone you care about, there is a terrible sense of helplessness.
Though you may feel alone when anxiety hits, the reality is that women have anxiety at a rate twice as high as men. Actually, an estimated 18 million women in the United States suffer from anxiety, and that’s counting only those of us who admit it. For many of us, the underlying psychological cause is our drive to do too much, fueled by feelings of inadequacy that often find us pushing too hard and ignoring our inner compass.
Sound familiar? I initially thought I just need a vacation. I was working 24/7 as a physician at a contracted job, where I was paid to work “part time.” When things finally slowed down and I couldn’t take it anymore, I escaped to Maui. It took the whole week at a retreat with one of my spiritual teachers, Alan Cohen, just to catch up on sleep and unwind.
Did escaping from the situation solve the problem? No, of course not. As I was driving back into work, I began to feel the panic rise and my heart start to race; I was filled with inexplicable fear. I tried deep breathing and listened to meditation music in the car, to little effect. It did not help that being on call frequently meant I was sleep deprived, so I relied on a steady stream of coffee to keep me “alert” during the long workdays. The caffeine, which promotes feelings of anxiety, increased my heart rate and left me feeling even more jittery.
Anxiety is our internal body compass. It can signal that we are on the wrong path in some aspect of our life. I realized that my anxiety was about much more than needing a vacation: it was telling me that my job was not taking me along a healthy path for my mind, body, or soul. It is no surprise that when I made an empowered decision to leave that job, the symptoms went away completely. I have to admit, it took months of anxiety before I listened to my internal body compass.
For those of us who experience anxiety, cluing in to what it is telling us about our lives is an important first step. Once we have awareness, we can take empowered steps to help ourselves. For many, meditation can be an important tool in alleviating the scary physical symptoms that can mark anxiety.
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A comprehensive meta-analysis of meditation studies was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in March 2014. The researchers reviewed 47 larger trials, and the aggregate opinion was that there is moderate evidence that meditation has been shown to improve anxiety. The difficulty with this analysis is that they were comparing different types of meditation and for various amounts of time. Individual studies of mindfulness-based meditation, transcendental meditation, and Benson- Henry Relaxation Response meditation—all show successful results in reducing anxiety scores, reducing the number of panic attacks, and lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and pain scores.
Meditation is one of several mind-body techniques that can improve the lives of those who experience anxiety. In my own life, weaning myself from caffeine, practicing yoga, and receiving reiki treatments also contributed to my healing.
If you experience anxiety, consider what it is telling you about the choices you are making and consider exploring meditation or other mind-body techniques that might help you find your center. The impact of anxiety is a conversation we need to have more frequently with one another. If someone has anxiety, there has to be no shame in talking about it.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Symptoms vary depending on the type of anxiety disorder, but these are some of the general symptoms:
- Feelings of panic, fear, and unease
- Uncontrollable, obsessive thoughts
- Repeated thoughts or flashbacks of traumatic experiences
- Ritualistic behaviors, such as repeated hand washing
- Problems sleeping
- Cold or sweaty hands or feet
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- An inability to be still and calm
- Dry mouth
- Muscle tension
It is important to know that you are not alone. Take the first step and reach out for help. It exists in both the traditional Western medical world and through healers in the integrative and complementary medicine fields.