How anxiety meditation helped this woman control her symptoms
Chare’A Smith sat down for her first meditation session when she was eight in elementary school. But she didn’t know how much she would need the practice until she was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in college.
Smith was first introduced to mindfulness meditation – the practice of observing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgment in the second grade. “I wasn’t exactly a restless kid, but I got into a lot of trouble at times,” recalls Smith. “I remember getting a little confused like, why do we have to sit and be still? But with more consistency I started to watch myself and became more aware of what I was actually feeling: You are not angry – you are actually sad. ”
In the fall of 2012, when Smith left her home in the southern Chicago suburbs for Indiana University in Bloomington, she suddenly found herself “walking around every waking hour” as a science major, president of her university’s chapter of the National Association for the University, promoting colorful People (NAACP), member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and employee of the Financial Aid Office.
The fear started out small. First, she tried to get the papers ready to meet tight deadlines. Then she skipped an awards show, a moment when she should have been honored for her hard work as an executive on campus because she was afraid to speak in front of people. Before major exams or class projects were due, she had panic attacks that made her unable to breathe. “I kept saying to myself: just breathe, just breathe, just breathe,” she recalls.
Smith knew she needed help when she broke down crying in the middle of a class in 2016. At that time, she and her classmates were writing answer essays after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a book of letters to the author’s 15-year-old son, in which, as a black man in America, he tried to address racial injustice and to understand the death of a friend who was shot by a police officer. Smith recently lost one of her cousins to gun violence. She hadn’t made it home to the funeral.
“I remember looking down and literally couldn’t write the paper,” says Smith. “It created so much trauma.” She had always been a high-flyer, but after not submitting this paper, her fear increased and she tried to keep up in other classes. “I went to the mental health facility on campus and told them, something is wrong with me. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t function. ”
Asking for help
That day, a psychiatrist diagnosed Smith with anxiety and depression. He prescribed her an antidepressant called mirtazapine (Remeron SolTab) and later suggested she take alprazolam (Xanax), a type of sedative in a class of drugs known as benzodiazepines, for her anxiety. But Smith decided against it because she had heard that it could be addicting for some people. (In fact, the Food and Drug Administration added a safety warning for benzodiazepines in September 2020 due to the risk of abuse, abuse, addiction, physical dependence, and withdrawal reactions.)
Smith visited a therapist on campus once a week. But otherwise she tried to keep her fights to herself. “It was a silent fight because I was embarrassed to tell someone what I was going through,” she says. “I’m a very private person, and especially in a marginalized community, people can feel ashamed when they have mental health problems.”
Although Smith didn’t tell her professors exactly what was wrong with her, she asked for your assistance as she embarked on this new journey. It turned out that Maria Hamilton Abegunde, Ph.D., a visiting professor in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, was also a meditation teacher and yoga teacher.
If conversations overflowed during office hours, the two would often go together to a nearby building where Abegunde led mindfulness meditation sessions. Smith gradually began to participate. “She really took me under her wing,” she says.
Four months after treatment, Smith weaned off antidepressants because she saw no therapeutic effect. At the same time she chose her meditation practice.
Meditation as a form of therapy
Currently, psychotherapy and medication are the primary treatments for anxiety and depression. But some patients, like Smith, view mindfulness meditation as a form of treatment in itself.
“We don’t yet know how mindful meditation compares to other treatments for anxiety disorders,” said Elizabeth Hoge, MD, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and director of the anxiety disorder research program at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, DC
“Mindfulness meditation helps people experience their thoughts differently.”
Previously, a study by Dr. 2018 Hoge published in the journal Psychiatry Research, People Living With Anxiety Disorders such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) or Panic Disorder (PD) Taken Stress Management or Mindfulness-Based MBSR (Stress Reduction) course for eight weeks, which includes exercises such as breath awareness, body scan meditations and yoga and offers two and a half hours of classes per week. Those who learned to meditate not only said they felt less stressed when they had to give a spontaneous speech in front of an audience, but that blood tests showed that they had a lower response to biological stress.
“It seems that mindfulness meditation for anxiety disorders helps people experience their thoughts differently,” says Dr. Hoge. “Instead of responding to the thought or trying to break away from the thought, they would see the thought for what it is – which is just a thought – and not try to push it away or grab it.” Additionally, learning how to be less judgmental and more compassionate with yourself is a fundamental part of the process, she says.
The path to healing
Smith says it took me some time to get the benefits of meditation. “At first, I just didn’t feel so down all the time when it came to doing simple things,” she says.
After a while, however, she began to notice helpful changes in her thought processes and way of thinking. Problems at work became an opportunity for learning. Wannabe confrontation with a friend, a chance to develop her communication skills.
“I think it goes back to what I learned as a kid,” she says. “You can look at things from the outside instead of just reacting when something happens to you.”
The next semester, Smith got the best grades she ever had. Once caught in a spiral of fear, she finally felt able to be her “full self” again.
“Meditation set me free,” she says. “It has allowed me to see that the presence of fear is normal, but living with your fear as a prisoner is optional.”
A lifelong practice
After Smith graduated from college, she struggled to manage a 9-5 job in sales, her first business, and a nonprofit – and her anxiety rose again.
“I began to understand that if I want to improve in my career, my wellness journey has to go up at the same time,” she says. Smith’s goal is to move up from three days a week as needed to six days a week on a set schedule.
Today Smith works as a full-time yoga and meditation teacher and entrepreneur. She is the founder and owner of two companies: Worthy of Evolving, a self-care shop for body, mind, soul and home, and Ye ‘Self Care, a meditation and wellness service that offers workshops for individuals and companies. She also runs a nonprofit called Melanin Girl’s Club, which aims to make self-care (including meditation) accessible and inclusive for women and color communities in urban areas.
Chare’A leads a meditation session on Melanin Girl’s Club’s second annual Self Love Goddess Trip in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Denisha Stringer, Capture Me Photography
How to meditate through anxiety and depression
If you want to try meditation to help relieve symptoms of anxiety or depression, the first thing you should do is connect with a psychiatrist, such as a therapist, who can tailor a treatment plan to suit your needs, says Dr. Hoge. This is especially the case when you are dealing with traumatic memories that can arise during meditation and are difficult to navigate by yourself, she notes.
Although there are many meditation apps out there, Smith and Dr. Hoge to find a teacher who will at least first guide you through real life practice. It’s normal to sometimes experience difficult emotions that you’ve ignored – including depression and anxiety – when you sit still for the first time in a long time.
“But that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” says Dr. Hoge. “Certain emotions will emerge if we leave them a space in which to emerge. And I think that’s part of why meditation has been so popular – people realize that they have feelings that they have to deal with, like unresolved grief that they don’t experience unless they leave room for them, for example while meditating. “However, this can be annoying or even worrying that meditation won’t work without someone to talk to you about it.
Many drop-in mindfulness meditation classes are available for free, and your doctor can assist you with enrolling for an MBSR course. (You can also find certified MBSR teachers around the world in this online directory from the Brown University Mindfulness Center.)
It is important to understand that mindfulness meditation is not a quick fix. It’s more like building and maintaining a muscle that takes time and commitment, like training or learning a new instrument, says Dr. Hoge. It is also not to be confused with relaxation techniques, which, while likely helpful for people with anxiety disorders, are different from mindfulness meditation. When you meditate, the goal is to observe your thoughts with openness and a non-judgmental attitude – which isn’t necessarily relaxing, she explains.
If you continue, “you find that your change, your breakthrough, or whatever you want to get out of your practice isn’t going to come overnight,” says Smith. “For me, meditation is my relief now – I enjoy it and I want to do it – and the days when I don’t want to do it are the days when I know I really need it.”
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