Kathy Whelan

Posted on October 03, 2017

On September 7, Equifax announced its massive data breach. Like everyone, I was shocked, confused, and frightened when I read the news. I felt a sense of helplessness, having no idea what to do or whether anything I did would matter. 

It was comforting to put aside the newspaper that morning and start my daily routine, which, for the past six months, had included a 15-minute mindfulness meditation using the Headspace app. My recent sessions had dealt with anxiety. I had been learning to note distractions that came up as I focused on my breath and to label them as “thinking” or “feeling,” positive or negative. When anxiety arose, I was learning to observe it non-judgmentally, to neither get swept up in it nor work to get rid of it. Lightly noting anxiety in this way was meant to ease the feeling and allow me to re-focus on my breath. 

During my session that morning, I didn’t identify a strong sense of anxiety about Equifax or anything else in particular. I remember being disappointed not to have much practice material. If I’d rated my anxiety on a scale where 1 was lowest and 10 highest, it was around a 3, which is probably baseline for me. 

In the following days, as I read more news and advice about the breach, I felt a growing concern about what to do. Oddly, Equifax still did not intrude on my morning meditations. Other, more personal anxieties, such as the length of my daily to-do list, allowed me to practice my noting skills. As this pattern continued for a week or so, my husband and I found more pleasant things to talk about over dinner.

Then one day, a box in a Wall Street Journal article caught my eye. It was a simple, bullet-pointed list of possible steps to take. Presented this way, it felt like a call to action on a problem that needed addressing. I clipped the article from the paper and left it on the dining table, where my husband and I often leave news items for one another to read. Days passed, and my husband made no mention of my clipping. But I was sure he would see things as I did and soon respond with some smart, practical advice. 

Early one morning, after my meditation, I took a walk with a friend. She mentioned Equifax and that she and her husband had a credit freeze in place. I’d felt centered when I left home, but now, if I had measured my anxiety, I’d have been at 6 or 7. This other couple had not only discussed the problem but had a solution in place! I couldn’t wait to tell my husband. When I did, he appeared to have no reaction at all. 

Later that day, I received a lengthy e-mail from a financial advisor we use, giving his firm’s perspective on the breach and recommending steps to take. This felt more personal and urgent than anything so far. My anxiety level must have been at 8 or 9 when I asked my husband that evening if he had received the e-mail too. Yes, he had. And no, he hadn’t read it.

At that point, there was no scale that went high enough to measure my anxiety – or my irritation. I reminded my husband in a not-so-nice tone of the clipping I’d left on the table, my conversation with my friend, and his lack of response to either. I ended my diatribe with a blast of self-pity: “I guess I’m going to have to deal with this by myself.” With that, I left the room. 

I fumed for longer than I like to admit before taking a few deep breaths. When I did, a humbling realization came to me. I should have used my mindfulness skills. What would have happened if I had observed and simply noted my growing Equifax anxiety, instead of getting caught up in it whenever it was stimulated and pushing it aside the rest of the time? Its intensity would likely have lessened. And it would not have become entangled with, or dependent on, the reaction of my husband, who was not feeling the same way.  

At last I fully understood two things my meditation teacher had been saying. Meditation benefits not only those of us who engage in it but those with whom we engage. And we need to use our mindfulness skills throughout the day, not just in our sessions. I felt my anger dissipate. 

I found my husband, who was sheltering in place in the den. “I should have seen my anxiety growing,” I told him. His expression softened as I took responsibility off his shoulders and onto my own. “What would you have done,” I asked, “if I’d told you how worried I was?” He replied, “I would have felt badly for you and we would have discussed it.”

Now isn’t that simple? Domestic Relations 101. But it’s really hard sometimes, especially when we are unaware of what’s going on in our minds and bodies. We often don’t take time to notice our feelings. When we do, we judge ourselves harshly for having feelings that are normal to everyone. In our discomfort, we sometimes push the feelings away. Or we get wrapped up in them, even to the point where they become an identity, which only makes us feel worse. 

As I am learning, albeit slowly, we can relate to our emotions differently. I will continue to work on this not only for myself but for the sake of others. I am now convinced that meditation really does have a ripple effect. 

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