Mindfulness Meditation for the Anxious, Restless Creative Person – Rangefinder Online

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Mindfulness Meditation for the Anxious, Restless Creative Person – Rangefinder Online

September 15, 2020
By Katch Silva

This is the fourth article in photographer Katch Silva’s series on mental health, mindfulness, productivity and work/life balance for creatives—particularly as we learn to cope with life in a global pandemic. If you haven’t already, do your brain a favor and read the other articles in the series: why you should beware the productivity hustle, why it’s okay to be in a rut, and how to break negative habits and thought patterns.
Tangentially related to this series is a piece that Silva wrote about implicit biases and unlearning what you didn’t even know you were internalizing. It’s a personal piece that’s very much worth a read.
I open my eyes with a gasp to a familiar tension running through my muscles: My toes are curling, my fingers ache from digging into my mattress, my chest throbs with pain, and I’m having difficulty breathing. I’m waking up mid nightmare—and mid panic attack.
I’ve suffered from these anxiety episodes since childhood. Until recently, I didn’t know these events were trauma-induced panic attacks and flashbacks; I used to think that I was just too sensitive to the vivid nightmares I was having. For years, I immersed myself into research, trying to figure out what was wrong with me and how to fix it. I read books on every relevant topic, including neurology, psychology, cognitive science and consciousness, philosophy, sexuality, spirituality, psychedelics, sleep, meditation and self-help. I poured over the latest research in anxiety disorders. I tried natural sleep aids like melatonin and cannabis, with limited results. I became addicted to exercise. For a time, I became obsessed with my diet, which led to a repetition of my childhood eating disorder. I dove into meditation research, from eastern traditions like vipassana, zen and dzogchen, to the more diluted Western practices.
The new knowledge I gained didn’t solve my issues, but it gave me an important foundation that would later be a key part of my recovery: It helped me understand my brain—and it led me to therapy, to a professional diagnosis and to mindfulness meditation.
At first I was skeptical, wondering if meditation was just another fad, a money-making scheme, or an ineffective placebo effect. But I stuck with it, relying on the research and on my two therapists’ advice.
A few months into daily meditation practice, I began to notice subtle improvements in mood. Now I’m four years in, and mindfulness meditation has completely changed the way I relate to my ruminating mind, particularly the toxic thought loops of worry and anxiety. As for the more intense panic and flashback episodes, the practice hasn’t eradicated these, but it has dramatically changed the way I experience them and has decreased my recovery time tremendously.
The best way to explain it is with a metaphor. Think of your awareness as an empty, open sky. The weather is made up of your thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations. Everything that passes through your mind—daily worries, rumination, anxiety and even panic attacks—is a change in the weather. It’s easy to get caught in the storm of anxiety and worry when your attention is narrowed down to that single gray storm cloud or that single massive hurricane. But with mindfulness meditation, you can expand your perspective to include the entire sky and access the equanimity of open sky again, even while the storm rages below.
When the storm brings panic attacks and flashbacks, which are often neurologically inescapable, mindfulness meditation can give you the clarity to witness the torment without identifying with it blindly. For me, it has been the best grounding technique to help me hold onto reality while waiting for the storm of anxiety and flashback to pass.
We don’t need to have deeply rooted anxiety to benefit from mindfulness meditation. Some of us are just “worriers” who get caught in never-ending thought loops. Sometimes we’re so deeply stuck in the trance of thinking, we don’t even realize it. We practice future conversations repeatedly and we mull over what could have been. We simmer in a toxic soup of past and future potentials for so long that we forget what it’s like to be fully present, inhabiting our bodies and benefiting from our rich sensory input. These tendencies trap us inside our mind.
Mindfulness is about coming back into our bodies, being present in what is, so we can let go of what was or what could be. It’s simply a better way to use our most valuable resources, time and attention—to let go of the things we can’t change and focus instead on what we can.
We can choose to turn attention away from the worrisome thoughts, even if just for 20 minutes, and instead focus on what’s important: Being present with our loved ones and ourselves, and experiencing life the way we did as children, before concepts like success, fame and money marred our experience and sent us into a lifelong goal of unattainable levels of stability and achievement. 
There are many paths towards healthier living. My recovery plan has included meditation, yoga, physical activity, psychosomatic therapy, diet changes and several other steps. And I still have a long journey ahead. Mindfulness is just one element, albeit a very important one. It has made each of the other components easier to face and more enjoyable to move through.
It isn’t a perfect solution—nothing is—and I still get carried away by the storm and lose myself in anxiety sometimes. I still get sucked back into the past by my flashbacks and panics. But mindfulness meditation has made my recovery back into the present an easier, more enjoyable journey.
It has also helped me savor the lovely moments of a human life, the joy of simple pleasures like cuddling with my kitties, playing a board game with friends or enjoying a really tasty meal with my partner. These are the moments that make life wonderful, and they often go unnoticed because we’re stuck in our heads—worrying, planning, prepping and anticipating. 
Mindfulness has helped me grasp that the only permanent thing in life is impermanence, and not just in a faraway-philosophical-idea kind of way. It has transformed negative experiences—from daily disappointments to life-changing trauma—and made them feel less immersive and far more manageable. It has made me more resilient and allowed me the freedom to let go of suffering in order to notice and revel in each pleasure of life.
For me, therapy coupled with mindfulness meditation was essential in my personal journey to well-being. Meditation helped me open the door to the darkness of my mind, calmly and accepting, but I wouldn’t have been able to face those shadows in a healthy way if I didn’t have a professional guiding me through the years.
Many people benefit from meditation alone, guided by recordings or online teachers, but if you suspect you may have other mental complications or a family history of psychosis, meditation may not be right for you. I urge you to seek professional help before digging deeply into a rigorous meditation routine. 
There is a lot of research on mediation and mindfulness. Below are just a few notable studies and research papers.
Parmentier FBR, García-Toro M, García-Campayo J, Yañez AM, Andrés P, Gili M. Mindfulness and symptoms of depression and anxiety in the general population: the mediating roles of worry, rumination, reappraisal and suppression.  Front Psychol. 2019
K.C. Fox, S. Nijeboer, M.L. Dixon, J.L. Floman, M. Ellamil, S.P. Rumak, P. Sedlmeier, K. Christoff. Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Rev., Tang Y., Holzel B., Posner M. The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation . Nature Rev. Neuroscience. 2015
Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 2010
Katch Silva is a wedding photographer and a Rangefinder 30 Rising Star of Wedding Photography in 2015. She has a psychology degree, and a mathematics degree, from the University of Pennsylvania. After living and shooting on the road in a van for three years, she settled in 29 Palms, CA, where she lives with her partner and two kittens. She has spent the last 10 years attempting to draw out and capture her couple’s genuine nature on camera. Psychology, the human mind, and our shared biology with the rest of nature are her biggest motivations and inspirations for both art and education, and she strives to share the knowledge she has gained through research, self exploration and therapy so that everyone may benefit. Her education can be found at learn.katchsilva.com.
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