Monday, April 6, 2015

Meditation Monday: Self-Regulation

By Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC

In an effort to take the “manic” out of “Monday,” this weekly post explores techniques, issues, latest research, and other thoughts on meditation. Nancy facilitates a weekly meditation group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or

We’ve all had the experience in which we feel that our emotions and nervous system have minds of their own. We feel the poke of anxiety, which might trigger anxiety about anxiety. “I’m not going to feel anxious! Just calm down!” That generally never works. We cannot wrestle our emotions into submission.

Self-regulating takes a different mindset. And it starts with self-compassion. The body cannot calm itself nor can emotions be processed unless the experience is fully understood. Unfortunately, many feel shame and embarrassment over having strong emotions.

Everyone’s level of sensitivity is different, and those who feel emotions intensely are not weaker or “less together” than someone with a steadier baseline. But coping with life challenges can become tough for someone who is easily triggered.

Meditation can help build emotional regulation tools. I recently created a guided meditation that gently prompts participants into feeling low levels of anxiety followed by calming cues. The meditator has the experience of tolerating the anxiety in a safe environment and begins to track the natural ebb and flow of the emotions.

In this “Unpredictable Path” meditation, an image of a smooth, stable path is called to mind. At some point, the path becomes a bit more challenging—perhaps it becomes muddy or rocky. Nothing too treacherous; but not as relaxing as the start of the path. The meditator notices any physical responses to the change in the path—nervous stomach? Increase heartrate? Then the path settles back into its initial calm state. This cycle is repeated a few times, with the challenging portions getting a bit rougher each time but never too intense or really dangerous. Prompts to focus on breathing are given throughout.

Just imagining a slippery or steep path can elicit a physical response; and returning to the stable path brings the individual to a state of calm. And while this exercise taps into only a fraction of some real-life challenges, we can at least learn that becoming mindful and recognizing natural physical responses is normal. Shifting to a position of self-compassion allows us to see solutions that might have been obscured by our self-criticism and shame.

Self-regulation covers a wide range of responses—from taking oneself into a state of complete relaxation to preventing further escalation or arousal. Meditation offers a supportive forum to practice this important skill. So stop power-struggling with your anxiety and try a gentler approach!

Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she leads the weekly meditation group and co-leads the Somatic-Experience-Informed Trauma Healing Group. Check and subscribe out her blog “All Shapes and Sizes,” which appears on Chicago Tribune’s media partner