Have you ever stepped away from a good opportunity thanks to overthinking all the things that could go wrong?

This week, I received an e-mail from a reader who described her story of a missed opportunity and asked, “Can meditation help me to stop worrying?”

I’m sure most of us are familiar with what it feels like to ruminate endlessly over a dilemma that won’t leave us alone. Life is peppered with crossroads and it can be difficult to choose which path to take. Often, we can ponder to the point of despair and end up with what psychologists call “analysis paralysis”, when we think so much about a situation that no action is taken in the end.

Before moving to Malaysia, I had the chance to put myself forward for a fairly lucrative job in communications, which would mean leaving my job as a newspaper journalist. It would have been a great opportunity for me, but I was plagued with a deluge of doubts that led me to staying put.

I questioned if I was good enough, whether I was ready for such a move (despite having been in a similar role previously), and I wondered if it was better to simply stick with my current job. After all, I was comfortable and there was no need to rock the boat.

While I usually don’t dwell on regrets, I have to admit that I regret allowing my worries to dictate my actions in that case. There’s no way to tell whether our decisions will serve us well or otherwise as time goes on; however, deep down I wanted to take the opportunity but suffered from a bad case of analysis paralysis.

Thinking back, I should have been meditating more than I was. A recent study in the Behaviour Research And Therapy journal suggests that meditation helps to reduce repetitive and intrusive negative thoughts through a technique called “acceptance-based mindfulness meditation”. The principle of this meditation is to spend time observing our thoughts and feelings while letting them be, without making judgements or trying to label them as good or bad.

It’s important to note that being non-judgemental doesn’t mean that we sit passively like a robot and try to avoid feeling anything. Rather, being non-judgemental refers to how we should treat our reactions to whatever thoughts and feelings come up.

For example, if a thought arises that makes you anxious, you might be tempted to say to yourself, “I’m not anxious … this is just a feeling … not anxious at all … just observing….” Usually, this just intensifies the anxiety and doesn’t help at all. Instead, when negative thoughts arise, if you feel a sense of mild anxiety, try to step back and just observe it; let it stay around for a while. It’s when we engage with the feeling that we prolong it, but by simply looking on and letting it be, we become less judgemental towards the experience and our reactions, and the feeling soon dissolves.

If you think of a waterfall as representing our thoughts and emotions, what meditation does over time is to allow you to step into the space behind the waterfall, giving you room to observe and respond. If certain thoughts and feelings are useful, you can step into them for a while. If they’re not, you can step back and just let them go on their way.

As a simple five-minute daily exercise, you can try the following:

> Sitting in a chair or in a meditative pose (whichever’s most comfortable), close your eyes and notice your thoughts and feelings and physical sensations as they arise.

> For each of these, make a mental note of the experience. Say to yourself, “My chest feels a little tight” or “There’s a thought about the promotion” or “I’m feeling bored”. Whatever comes up, see it exactly as it is without judging it as being good or bad. If you do catch yourself judging, it’s OK; just let that moment pass and continue.

> If it helps, you can visualise yourself as “standing behind” these experiences, as though you are in that space behind the waterfall, observing your thoughts and feelings, breathing normally throughout.

If you practise the exercise regularly, you will begin to find that your mind’s tendency to ruminate will become less and less. You’ll also experience a deeper sense of clarity when it comes to weighing options in any decisions you have to make. The key is to be regular in your practice. If you stop meditating for a week or more – as I had done before my dilemma I described earlier – the clarity becomes diluted and the doubting begins to take over again.

We all worry from time to time. Meditation doesn’t stop us from thinking, but it does enable our minds to create more space for us within our minds, and it’s in this space that we’re able to take a step back, see the bigger picture, and come to realise the best course of action to take from there.

Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, e-mail star2@thestar.com.my.