When Yael Shy attended her first meditation retreat, she expected a nice, relaxing break. A junior at New York University, her anxiety had reached an all-time high and she was looking for some relief.
Instead, for seven days straight, she sat in silence from morning until night, with the exception of speaking with her meditation teacher in the evenings.
“I was like, what? What is this place? What am I doing?” Shy recalled. “I had never meditated before.”
With no escape from her thoughts, the meditation practice initially amplified Shy’s feelings of anxiety and loneliness. Then, something interesting happened -- she started noticing her negative self-talk. The stories she’d told herself for so long -- "I’m an idiot," or "I mess up everything I do" -- sounded less convincing.
“Through meditation, I started to be able to shine a light on, 'oh, this is how my mind talks to me. It’s not the truth.'”
For Shy, that first meditation retreat was "transformative." She continued attending retreats and slowly integrated meditation into her daily life. Today, she is founder and senior director of MindfulNYU, a meditation teacher and, best of all, panic-free.
Shy had felt anxious before, but it wasn’t until college, when she experienced all the painful emotions associated with early adulthood, that “it really exploded.”
Without the tools to process her emotions, the anxiety ballooned into a state of panic.
"I was in a really bad place, multiple panic attacks, not knowing what to do about them," Shy said. "It was really impacting my life."
It took Shy a few meditation retreats to build a regular practice. For 30 to 45 minutes a day, she sat on her couch and paid attention to her breath. Then, feeling the weight of her body in the cushion, she noticed her thoughts.
At least half the meditation was spent lost in thought, then gently returning to the breath, a practice known as mindfulness.
More than 15 years of practicing meditation have brought Shy peace. She no longer experiences panic attacks, even in moments of high anxiety.
While Shy also credits therapy for her healing, meditation helped her discover the sources of her anxiety and answer those existential questions that drove her sense of loneliness.
“It's not just about relaxing or getting centered, which I think, for me, exercise can do for me or other forms of release,” Shy said. “But insight into, well, where is this coming from? What is at the base of it?”
Recent studies show evidence supporting Shy’s transformation. A 2014 JAMA Internal Medicine review found that mindfulness meditation programs can help improve anxiety and depression.
A 2019 analysis of data from 2000 to 2018 found that mindfulness helped not only with coping, but also immune response and cancer-related fatigue.
With women nearly twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in their life, those hoping to improve their mental health might benefit from practicing meditation as Shy did.
“It’s this path to clarity, self-love and awareness,” Shy said. “That's what I think the real promise of meditation is for young women.”
Fortunately, a recent uptick in meditation’s popularity has spawned a variety of apps and YouTube videos promising a calmer mind. Group classes, however, are Shy’s preferred meditation 101. Classes keep new meditators accountable while integrating them into a community of like-minded people.
Shy herself teaches at MNDFL, a meditation studio in New York City. Her book, “What Now? Meditation for Your Twenties and Beyond,” details her experiences and mindfulness practices to help 20-somethings navigate early adulthood.
“I think it's transformed so many people's lives,” Shy said. “I've now been at it long enough that I can start to see some of my students are becoming teachers themselves, which is also really gratifying and beautiful.”
Shy offers these 3 tips to get your mind right for your meditation:
- Consider that anxiety and stress might have something to teach you.
In meditation, rather than trying to get rid of anxiety, become familiar with it. Invite it to tea! Learn when it comes up, what are its triggers and where you feel it in the body. Learn to understand the messages it gives you and what its function is. Trying to push anxiety away, or magically transcend it, will only cause more suffering. Instead, tap into the part of yourself that is larger than the anxiety in order to give it room to breathe, and then turn towards it with curiosity and gentleness.
-Flip the script.
Anxiety is often connected to desire or longing. If you are anxious about finding love, or an upcoming presentation, see if you can flip the story and reframe the situation in terms of the desire you have the situation. You really want to find love. You really want the presentation to go well. As you breathe in meditation, breathe into that desire, allowing the generative, expansive energy of desire light you up from inside, rather than the narrowing, constricting nature of anxiety.
-Practice letting go.
So much of anxiety and stress is your mind's way of trying to find power where you have no power, or where there is a limit to your power. Once you have gone up to the edge of what (and who) you can control, there is nothing left but to be with your feelings and your breath. Anxiety thinks that by working you up, you will suddenly solve the answer of how you can control the universe. Spoiler alert: it never works. Meditation can give you the practice, over and over again, to release what you have no control over, and to continue to come back to this moment, this breath, these feelings -- the beautiful, messy now.