As I deepen my practice of sound, I observe how many are affected by fear. I knew this already—it exerts itself liberally in this time—but I’m realizing just how heavy and pervasive a weight it is. I’ve been quite insulated these last months. Spending my free nights and weekends joyfully in sound, busy with children and work, I’ve only periodically felt the anxiety gripping the world. Anxiety is a fierce thing to contend with. It hijacks the brain, body, and heart. Presently, our whole world is hijacked, which means we are encountering it within and without. Anxiety is so normalized we may not even realize that we’re dealing with it or that it isn’t a natural state of being. It isn’t. Our natural state (albeit more challenging though not impossible in times like these) is one of joy, connection and peace. We must actively nurture this capacity in ourselves or we are looking at much graver long-term implications for the trauma we are living through. So how then can we address the pieces that are within our control and nurture our well-being?
Three years ago, I faced severe anxiety, PTSD and depression. It terrified me. I love my brain, I love using it and stretching it, and it was no longer my own. I don’t know if I’ll ever be free to speak of the trauma that brought it about, but what I can talk about is what it felt like and how I gradually came away from the precipice and learned to reassert well-being and clear that terrible fog. The skills I learned in that dark year, and that I continue to learn, have served me well this past year. That year taught me how to actively care for myself and prioritize my well-being. So critical a thing, it should be universally acknowledged and taught from the earliest age, just as we’re taught how to care for our physical health and our intellectual development. Instead, my healing journey began in 2015, when I already had children of my own. And it was my brain saying stop and deal with this properly that at last forced me to actively heal starting in 2018. Much as that brain fog scared me, it alerted me. The brain is our best friend in this, letting us know it cannot sustain anymore. Brain fog and anxiety are symptoms many are living with today. In my experience, if we listen to that and do the work, we can arrive in a glorious place. The work is challenging and takes time, and initially feels as though it effects nothing, but it does. It can yield a joyful rebirth, even in times such as these.
After a difficult first three months of COVID beginning in March of 2020, I implemented several choices to overcome COVID-related fear and anxiety, and foster continued personal growth and healing. I was still in a fragile place and could feel myself slipping backwards. Mental health, like physical and intellectual health, is a lifelong journey and requires ongoing self-awareness and care. Here are some of the choices I’ve made in this pandemic that have been helpful. I’m not a clinical psychologist, therapist, or doctor, and this list is by no means exhaustive, but these choices have been essential to my well-being and allowed me to grow in joyful ways. I will list them briefly and then discuss meditation in more depth.
Develop a daily meditation practice. This is vital. If this is new to you and it feels difficult, you are not alone, please read to the end.
Get a good therapist! And if you can’t afford one—basically, if you don’t have a good benefits plan, which is a serious issue in a world where mental health is potentially one of the most pervasive health threats of our time—talk to your doctor and look for organizations that offer subsidized options. I’ve had wonderful therapy through traditional means (my therapist and EMDR, thanks to my benefit plan for which I am grateful), through my doctor, and through organizations that offer it freely to victims of trauma. I’ve also explored and benefitted from alternative therapies, like sound healing and NeuroShamanic work.
Resist turning to stimulants like excessive alcohol or synthetic recreational drugs to mask pain or fear. They won’t solve anything but they will contribute to prolonging and increasing your anxiety levels and your general unhealth, and they will interfere with sleep. Unhealthy foods are another trigger. Avoid processed foods and sugar, they will also exacerbate sleeplessness and anxiety.
Find something creative that gives you pleasure and make time for it each day. You don’t need to be good at it. Choose something you’ve always wanted to do. Colour, sing, dance, write, paint, cook.. If you can, take an online course in it. A journal is always a good idea. Last year at this time, when I realized I was sliding back into that panic, I increased my meditation walks, and undertook working through The Artist’s Way (a creative healing course offered in a book for $21). Since then, I’ve taken several free online theatre courses, a few writing courses, and my children and I have enjoyed free visual arts and cooking courses online. My daughter loves Create this Book. My son is composing his own music. I’ve learned to play new instruments. YouTube offers lots of free lessons. Indulge yourself and take pleasure in it!
Limit your consumption of media and social media. This one is important. One critical decision I made last Spring was choosing not to continue reading media coverage of Covid. It made an enormous difference. I do not deny the state of the world or my feelings as they arise but I’m not feeding the anxiety pattern needlessly. It’s quite simple, take Vitamin D, follow the rules, but don’t read the endless articles and headlines, many of which pander to sensationalism. Trust me, I have never once in this past year not known what’s going on, and I’m always aware of guidelines. As long as you respect the guidelines, cutting this reading material does not change your physical health and safety or that of anyone you love. What it will shift is mental health and anxiety levels. Given that anxiety has devastating effects on the immune system, this is a needful choice for both mental and physical health.
Also, don’t talk about the pandemic constantly. Especially stop talking about it around children and teenagers. They are very susceptible to anxiety and extremely vulnerable in this time. We must teach them instead to find joy, to practice creativity, to prioritize their health and well-being and to imagine and manifest a better future. We absolutely must do this collectively.
Begin to recognize and break the negative thought habits you have, whether it be fearing things beyond your control (ie. past and future) or habits of negative self-talk. Healing is a choice and requires active work and awareness. In my experience, this requires some mental and physical peace such that meditation will allow you. It won't feel easy initially, but you need to choose what state you want to live in and then make the choices and do the work that will support that. And remember that we each possess the capacity to imagine and live something better. We just don’t always know it.
Do something physical. Get outside for a bike ride, for a walk, learn something new. Dance wildly in your living room. My son has learned how to skateboard in this time. My daughter and I go for endless walks. My son, too, when I can pull him away from his skateboard (if he’s outside, I’m happy). This past winter, my children and I would go out to wide open fields at night to cross-country ski under the moon and stars.
Nature. Spend as much time in nature as possible. I cannot stress this one enough. Nature is enormously healing. I make time to do this alone and with my children. I feel such a depth of gratitude when I am in nature. Incorporating it into my meditation practice is vital, as is the joy of sharing it with my children.
Keep in touch with loved ones. Make time to talk to them and stay connected. It helps you and it helps them. I don’t know what I would do without my support network- my children, my family, my friends. Connection and love lead to gratitude which will make you feel good. In my difficult year, I was very isolated, but I had a small network of close friends and family (my mother especially) and a good supportive relationship with my ex-partner that prioritizes our children- My children, they are my light, and the reason I worked so hard to heal and why I seek to bring healing tools to others.
Afford time to mental health every day. This means, even when you feel good, go for a walk in the woods, express gratitude, feel the sun on your skin, hug a tree. You are reinforcing the good. And when you feel badly, acknowledge it, feel it, examine it, and determine if it is a worry about something that may or may not happen. Most of our anxious thoughts are about past or future and do not actually benefit from our attention, but we must feel them and understand our patterns to move past them. Then choose a happier direction for your thoughts (herein the importance of your creative activities, connection, and meditation).
Find spaces where talking about self-care, self-love and growth of self-care practice are normalized. It helps, not only to know you are not alone, but to share tools for improving how you feel and to normalize the process of healing and caring for self.
Sleep. Regular and sufficient sleep is vital to mental well-being. Anyone who has struggled with mental health knows that sleeplessness can be downright terrifying. From my experience, sleep improves as we heal, and all the things I list are things that also helped me with sleep. In particular, meditation, sound therapy, physical activity, sunshine, food choices, a sleep schedule, reducing time on electronics (particularly in the evening and before bed), and not looking at my phone when I woke (and lay awake) in the night (have a book and low light on hand instead) were all helpful. I have also found a calcium magnesium supplement and magnesium spray before bed to be helpful.
Practice gratitude. This has already come up a few times. If we wish to manifest joy we must feel it. It doesn't mean we can skip acknowledging and working through our difficult feelings and patterns, but we must learn to actively embrace gratitude for the joys we possess. The more we shift our negative patterns, the easier and more abundant this piece gets. In my experience, meditation helps enormously with this.
So, then— meditation. What exactly is it? Everyone talks about it but many find what they think it should be to be impossible. For many years, and through most of that very difficult year starting in 2018, I really couldn’t have told you. I would have said it is a state of quiet in the mind, not really comprehending what that meant. Now, I’ll tell you it is as much a state of the body, a feeling of calm, of openness, of emptiness, of expansion. It was in reading Dr. Joe Dispenza (Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself is a great place to start) that I began to understand the role my body played in my anxiety and addressed the habit it had formed with cortisol, and the unconscious limbic patterns that were causing me to circulate the same negative mental and physical patterns and thoughts. Once I understood this, I started to observe the moment my anxiety began to kick in and shift my body away from it. I would say no to that shot of cortisol habit had encouraged my body to crave. I focused on feeling open and light in my body and not judging my thoughts. And I started to make progress with meditation and shifting my negative thought patterns. I gained the ability to choose my thoughts actively, to change my limbic patterns. Not by trying to erase them, stop them, block them, but by addressing my body, understanding my patterns, recognizing and releasing what was beyond my control, addressing what was, and choosing to inhabit wholeness in my body. And then, gradually, extending the period of time for which I could feel that physical wholeness. Like healing any injury, it took attention and time and some days were easier than others.
But how to develop a meditation practice with an anxious brain? There are many techniques and everyone should find those that work for them, be it through breath, guided imagery, mantra work, sound, walking, or another means. For me, sound and nature are essential. Science demonstrates that sound has measurable effects on our physical body, our brain, and our emotions. Which is why I like it, it addresses the challenging body piece as well as our brain wave state. We can’t think straight when we are in a state of fight or flight. Sound addresses the nervous system and the endocrine system, moving the body from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic state (a state of cortisol, high tension and busy thoughts, to one of theta brain waves and release and calm in the body). Put simply, sound rebalances the vibration of the body and brain, allowing you to understand your patterns and do the work from a place of greater wholeness and release. Ultimately, we ourselves must do the work of healing, sound facilitates that. Adding sound meditation and healing made a great deal of self-work, self-healing and self-knowledge possible for me.
Of course, these choices I’ve outlined don’t make me permanently immune to worry or sadness. I will periodically encounter triggers for my own trauma, but I know how to recognize and work through them now. And I do not deny the time we are living in. I cried through my son’s online choir concert for the beauty my children are missing, what and who we are all missing. This was actually a lovely cathartic release, though my children found it hilarious. But I sometimes wonder if I won’t travel again, if I won’t dance in a crowd at a live music event again, if I won't visit my parents at home again, if I won’t experience the connection of an audience at a profoundly moving piece of theatre again, if I won’t experience the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, or majestic remote mountains, or if my children will not go to parties and date and dance as they should. Oh, my children— This one, in particular, is challenging. But these are future fears, not facts, and this is not the first time in history the world has moved through illness and trauma. This will pass, and those experiences I long for will be all the sweeter for what I have now lived and understood. And my children are finding ways to connect with their peers. I'm helping them in that and helping them experience other things, like skiing under the stars at midnight. I'm helping them take this time to develop meditation and self-care tools that will last them their whole lives. And I'm imagining a world in which we learn from this, to honour our planet, all peoples and races, and all living creatures.
I would like to note that in all of this, I don't mean to trivialize the very real precarity many are living with. It is for that reason that I'm responsive to financial need in my practice. But I believe we cannot wait to prioritize ourselves and our healing. Every little bit we can each do for ourselves will help the whole, individually and collectively. And for those of you trying to navigate without tools, my heart goes out to you. But know this, you’ve made it this far, which means you are winning. Know that you can develop these tools and that you can feel better. You don’t need to be anything but you and you deserve self-care. Take this time to give yourself so much love. Make choices for your well-being. You are worth it. We are each one of us worthy of love and joy. And we must each of us choose to nurture that in ourselves.