At six years old, I had my first-ever panic attack. I can’t remember precisely what triggered it or how, but I do remember sitting with my parents in a parking lot while my heart thrashed around in my chest like a bee in a jar, feeling absolutely certain that I was about to die. It was terrifying. Since then, anxiety has been a big—at times, overbearing—part of my life, and one that I’ve repeatedly failed to find a long-term solution for. Coupled with some periodic spells of depression and the occasional suicidal thought, I felt for a long time as though I were slowly free-falling.
I’ve tried various treatments including prescribed medication, self-prescribed herbal supplements, dietary changes, and even watching live feeds of kittens over the years. With the obvious exception of the adorable felines, none of these felt like effective treatments for me.
Filling an Rx for Meditation
So six months ago, when my doctor joined the ranks of my more free-spirited friends in recommending mindful meditation to me as a legitimate form of therapy for my symptoms, I remained skeptical. After all, if my current state feels like absolute hell, then how is practicing feeling present in those feelings going to alleviate that? As it turns out, I had the completely wrong idea about what mindful meditation can achieve.
Christiane Wolf, a physician-turned-mindfulness teacher who is also the co-author of A Clinicians’ Guide to Teaching Mindfulness, shared some insights about what effect mindfulness can have on maintaining a healthy mind.
"Regular mindfulness practice works on several levels. Like other meditation practices, it allows the body/mind to calm down and relax (even though that isn’t the goal of mindfulness practice, which is simply being with things as they are, moment by moment)," she says. "It lets us see and experience our habitual patterns close up—which is often quite uncomfortable, let me tell you—and it opens the door to a deeper connection with oneself and the world around us."
Changing the Way We Think
When approached as a practice for maintaining good mental health, mindful meditation can be seen as a powerful cross-section between Eastern contemplative traditions and scientific traditions of the West. The practice can be similar to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, for example, in that mindful meditation can help you recognize and change negative thought patterns. [Acceptance and mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral therapies]. Ngô TL. Sante mentale au Quebec, 2014, Jul.;38(2):0383-6320. In these practices, we pay attention to the present moment, including thoughts, feelings, and sensations, but do so without judgment. We can monitor the process of our negative feelings without dwelling on their content. And it’s exactly these qualities that makes the practice so effective as a daily treatment for my own anxiety and depression.
"Practicing not to identify with thoughts and emotions is challenging, but is a total game-changer," Wolf explained to me. "The most revelatory concept is that you are not your thoughts—and you are not your emotions, either. They are like weather patterns moving through. They are part of the present moment you experience, but they are not who you are."
After I left the doctor’s office and downloaded a couple of mindful meditation apps, I started using guided exercises for a minimum of five minutes each day… and to my astonishment, it worked. Sometimes the exercises were emotional, other times they were peaceful or joyful, and often they were confrontational. However, each day I felt a little clearer, focused, and more in tune with myself and the world. Most importantly, perhaps, the practice helped me to realize I was not my anxiety or my depression. I was in control.
Evidence to Back It Up
I was surprised that my doctor had recommended it to me in the first place, but in retrospect, I guess I shouldn’t have been. The truth is there has been an impressive amount of medical studies that have successfully determined the value of mindful meditation on mental health. A 2007 study, for example, suggested that a mindfulness-based stress reduction program can have a beneficial effect on anxiety symptoms, and could improve stress reactivity and coping mechanisms.
You are not your thoughts—and you are not your emotions, either. They're like weather patterns... part of the present moment you experience, but they're not who you are.
Meanwhile, a 2014 pilot study investigated the efficacy of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) on major depressive disorder (MDD) when compared to antidepressant monotherapy. The study found that an 8-week course of MBCT was effective in treating MDD. So much so that it even had the potential to be used as a viable alternative to traditional courses of medication.
A Crazy-Easy Way to Start
Donna Rockwell, a clinical psychologist who specializes in mindfulness, as well as fame and celebrity psychology, explained that the foundations of mindfulness are also incredibly accessible.
"One thing that is helpful to anyone is the ability to maintain a mindful versus chaotic mind," she says. "A good shortcut is to simply become aware of one’s five senses: What do I see right now? What do I hear right now? What do I taste right now? What do I smell right now? What do I feel right now? After we become aware of our five senses, our minds naturally settle into the present moment. Our physiology calms down, and our reasoning and executive functioning improve."
Mindful meditation has proven itself to be a powerful solution for many of my mental health issues. The practice has given me a positive sense of self-perception, but it’s also equipped me with some easy tools with which to understand negative feelings and habits, face them without judgment, and effectively dismantle them.
The overall effect that it’s had on my life cannot be understated—it’s possibly even saved my life. So believe your well-meaning hippie friends when they sing its praises. The hype is real, and mindful meditation is exactly the support system your mental health may have been missing all along.
Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, blogger, and musician based in Liverpool, UK. She’s the co-founder of the irreverent pop culture blog and podcast Clarissa Explains F*ck All, an entertainment features writer for Bustle, and the bassist for d-beat punk band Aüralskit. She’s currently working on her first novel and slowly completing her debut poetry collection. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.