In an early post about anxiety symptoms, I discussed my personal experience with a panic attack several years ago. In particular, I talked about the fear of falling to pieces, a kind of disintegration anxiety; it involved the feeling of a threat to my self in the most physical sense, to my bodily integrity, and the terror that I wouldn’t hold together. Anyone who has gone through anxiety attacks or has any kind of anxiety disorder will likely understand what I mean.
Although I’ve since learned how better to manage my anxiety, and have never experienced another panic attack, this period of intensified stress only recently came to a complete close. Now that I’m on the other side, I’ve begun to realize the toll it took on me, and the ways that my anxiety symptoms affected me in an ongoing way, much more than I realized at the time. I’d like to talk about the experience, my sense of self and how mindfulness meditation techniques have proven useful to me.
During my panic attack and in the early period of intense anxiety symptoms, I felt under siege, as if I were hunkered down in a foxhole with the threat of bombs about to explode around me. I use that image because it captures the degree of menace I felt (I’ve also been watching Season Two of Downton Abbey, with Matthew and Thomas in the trenches, so the image came readily to mind.) At those moments, I was often able to pay attention to nothing more than my anxiety symptoms and ways to calm myself; the outside world felt to me as if it were a threat and I needed to marshal all my resources to protect myself, which often meant shutting out that world, or at least my awareness of it. (I believe this dynamic lies at the heart of agoraphobia, and also has implications for post traumatic stress disorder.) My psychological world became very small; when I wasn’t consciously aware of the anxiety, I lived very much in my mind, using verbal thought (my favorite defense mechanism) to gain some sense of control.
During this time, I found my work with clients to be a great psychological help, a place of refuge not in the avoidant sense but as a well-defined, disciplined experience that helped me feel more self-contained. When I’m in session, I try to put aside any goals or preconceptions I may have and listen as intently as I can to what my client is saying. I don’t strain to understand, or try to work out the meaning in a logical or rational way. I strive for a kind of mental quiet while I focus on my physical sensations and emotions, waiting as patiently as I can for insight to come to me. In addition to helping me understand my clients, the discipline of my work also helped me feel more personally in focus, more whole, integrated and safe as an individual. That is, my work as a psychotherapist helped me feel contained; as a result, I was able to rely far less on my verbal thought defenses and finish my work day feeling much better.
In many ways, this approach to the practice of psychotherapy resembles mindfulness meditation, with its goal of mental quiet and the disengagement from verbal thought. While I find mindfulness meditation techniques to be useful, I worry that it’s merely the current fad; many people seem to pursue it in an almost cult-like fashion, and also as a kind of superior “enlightenment”, in a way that feels familiar to me from the 1970s, when so many people I knew began to meditate and talk about their mantras. I use mindfulness meditation techniques as a tool, as a means to disengage from my customary defense mechanisms. The mental quiet allows me to watch myself in action; because of years of psychotherapy and working with myself on a daily basis, I can see my defenses in action, “hear” the familiar verbal processes kick in and try to silence them, focusing instead on what I might be trying to avoid or defend against. Maybe it’s the anxiety in my body; or anger I’ve not wanted to face. The mental quiet might bring me into contact with my exhaustion, or the sadness I feel about some recent losses. For me, the quiet of mindfulness is not the goal in itself, a kind of enlightenment, but rather a means to silence my defense mechanisms and focus on the emotional experience that lies behind them.
I don’t meditate per se; rather, I try to bring myself back to my breathe again and again throughout the day, stilling the verbal chatter. Lately, as the anxiety of the past few years has begun to fade, I’ve been much more successful at it, and at the same time, I feel as if I’m inhabiting my body more fully. I find this very difficult to describe, but it’s as if my consciousness often extends further out now, all the way to my toes and fingers. When I’m stressed or anxious, I often feel as if I’m mostly in my thoughts, or inside my head and looking out of my eyes, focused on the visual input; I can easily lose touch with the rest of my body. Now, as the threat recedes, I feel more physically whole. My self feels larger, in a way. In these past few weeks, I’ve become more powerfully aware of the toll this period of stress has taken on me. I’m trying to take better care of myself, to rest more, but at the same time, I feel more able to face other responsibilities I’ve been neglecting.
In other words, mindfulness meditation is an adjunct tool for the process of psychotherapy, not a replacement for it. Mental quiet and a focus on your breath allows you to observe, in action, what you’ve come to understand about yourself in your therapy, to disengage from your defense mechanisms and come into contact with the physical/emotional experiences you’ve been trying to avoid.
Does this make sense to anyone else?