Integrating Fear & Anxiety via Meditation

01 December 2022
A picture of a person wearing sunglasses in front of a graffity wall to show the empowerment of a life well-lived.
By Ben Schoelzel
As the soul and the brain of Samaṇa, Ben focuses on changing his being in the world via a 2-hour daily meditation practice, authentic relating and interpersonal meditation, as well as in an ongoing IFS-practice. He started writing poems in his teenage year and rediscovered his joy for writing with the newsletter and articles for Samaṇa.

Using meditation as a tool to peel off the layers of the onion

In early 2018, I sat my first 10-day meditation retreat. At the end of the first full 12h day of meditation, I went to bed, happy about the day being over. Meditating for a full day can be challenging. Roughly 5h into my sleep, I jolted awake, my heart racing. Nothing had happened and I had no idea where this was coming from or what was going on. I tried going back to sleep, but soon the alarm rang, and another day of meditation unfolded. From then on, every time I napped or went to sleep, my heartrate accelerated with my heart beating viciously in my chest. “Keep meditating”, was all the teacher said. The effect lasted for a few days after the retreat had ended and then vanished. It reappeared during my 2nd retreat and during my bout of severe insomnia, which lasted for around half a year some time in 2019. During that time, each night, after ~4-6h I jolted awake, like being hit by lightning, only to toss and turn with a racing heart until I had to get up. Not an easy or pleasant period. It took me about two years to realize that I struggled with anxiety and that this anxiety is what jolted me awake at night. Anxiety is future-oriented worrying, depression is past-oriented worrying, which in my opinion is one of the reasons why anxiety and depressive disorders often co-occur. Worrying is related to being fearful: we fear that we did something wrong in the past or we fear that something bad will happen in the future or our currently pleasant experience of life will change.
A picture of hands lying relaxed in the lap during meditation
Meditation balances awareness and attention.

The biology of fear and how it relates to learning

Fear is a common theme in our everyday lives, and Gerald Hüther, a German neuroscientist, lays this out in his book “Biologie der Angst – Wie aus Stress Gefühle werden” (“Biology of Fear – How Stress Turns into Emotions”) from a biological standpoint. Fear is an adaptive behavioral system, which, rather than being hardwired into us, is adjusted with a variety of neurotransmitters: Spot a tiger? Become fearful, run away (or whatever you can reasonably do to not be eaten), escape and get a reward triggered. The tiger got a bite out of you? Adjust your behavior next time, e.g., climb up a tree.
The gist of the book: When faced with a challenge, we resort to learnt solution strategies. If successful, we strengthen this behavioral response; if unsuccessful, we stress out and try harder until that either fails or succeeds. If it fails, this can trigger a new response, yet if the old behavior is too deeply ingrained, we simply keep on trying harder and harder. This turns normal stress into unhealthy stress, eventually negatively affecting our immune system, mood, and a host of other things that helps us have a good time. If we’re in this state long enough, the old, ingrained pathways soften, and new behavioral responses can arise. Often, this is accompanied by a fundamental shift in perception, values and how we interact with the world. While this is a seemingly gentle process on paper, the harsh reality can be a time of turmoil, highs and lows and a general sense of being lost.

Trying harder until one fails or succeeds

This model of maps onto my personal experience of the world: Despite being in an environment that I didn’t enjoy and in which I struggled, I simply kept trying harder to solve my problems, be it at work or in my relationship. It didn’t result in me enjoying what I did more or getting any better at it (being stressed out narrows one’s vision and doesn’t allow for peak performance, which is why, as a manager and leader, you should strive to create a safe environment for your employees instead of one of fear), or in me being able to fix my relationship. Both things, my “dream job” and my “dream girlfriend”, dissolved despite my strongest efforts. It took a fair bit of time, soul-searching and going into my fears to integrate these learnings, to learn new behavioral strategies and to incorporate everything into my worldview. I’m still afraid at times. I still worry. But I let that dictate my behavior less.

Meditation as a tool to access the subconscious

Circling back to my first 10-day retreat: Sitting still and honing one’s awareness (taking all sensory input in and becoming aware of it) and attention (singling out any one sensory input and concentrating on it) brings forth what’s hidden underneath all that’s going on in our everyday lives. When we do things, watch a movie, spend time with others, etc. we usually have a lot of attention on what’s happening and a miniscule amount of awareness scanning the background. Meditation trains both facilities and often strengthens awareness relative to attention. Awareness brings us in touch with our nervus system, which amongst others, produces the aforementioned effects such as an ongoing anxiety response that was barely hidden underneath the surface. Coming more in touch with our nervous system and subconscious elements, allows us to shine light on what state we are in (the so-called Rumpelstiltskin principle in psychology that “seeing something frees us from its hold over us”), facilitate adjustments in our behavior and helps to live a life well-lived.

All of us benefitting from learning how to deal with emotions more skillfully, e.g., by learning emotional healing, as well as being more in touch with ourselves, e.g., via meditation are reasons why our Samana Fellowship both has emotional healing and awareness and attention training elements.

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The information in this article is provided as an information resource only and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. Please consult a professional for guidance about a specific condition.