Singer-songwriter Jewel is best known for ballads such as “You Were Meant for Me” and “Who Will Save Your Soul,” but lately she’s been focused on promoting mindfulness and sharing her mental health story. Late last year she launched Never Broken, a site dedicated to “emotional fitness” through online tools. And last week, on a new episode of Dan Harris’ podcast “10% Happier,” the 42-year-old Alaska native explained how she used the practice to take control after ending up homeless and plagued by panic attacks at age 18.
“The word mindfulness wasn’t even around back then, but I went back to this idea of how can I rewire my brain,” she says on the podcast. “I remembered this quote by Buddha: ‘Happiness doesn’t depend on who you are or what you have, it depends on what you think.’ I had the distinct pleasure of only having what I thought left. I had no family, no house, no food—nothing to distract me, if you will.”
Looking through her journals, Jewel realized she’d been addicted to negative thinking and knew she needed to make a change. To do so, she created her own series of meditations to help her be more mindful every day and also to aid her in specific difficult moments. Her quick visualization to cope with panic attacks—which started plaguing her at age 16—is one such example:
“I learned to do this meditation where I imagined I was on a very
stormy ocean. I’d imagine myself sinking through the ocean, allowing
myself to relax, I would get calmer. I would notice the color of the
ocean change. I’d notice the taste of salt on my lips. I’d notice the
rays of sunlight coming in and the further I got down to the sandy
floor, it got calm, it got tranquil by then, and I would look up at
the stormy surface and it was in the distance.”
Jewel’s panic attack visualization both distracts her and calms her down—two key ways to ease up the discomfort of a panic attack. And it’s a perfect visualization to bookmark for the next time you’re feeling a panic attack set in.
It makes sense that meditation would help Jewel cope with her anxiety. Meditation can actually change the way your brain works. Studies have shown meditation amps up activity in the parts of the brain dedicated to focus, calmness, and processing stress—and this makes it an effective treatment for mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Experts have previously told SELF that to see the results of meditation, it’s important to be consistent and ideally practice every day.
Jewel says meditating helped her learn to observe her thoughts rather than let them run amok. “I would notice my anxiety, and I would force myself to…track the thought to see what the lie was my brain was telling me, and I’d tell myself the truth,” she said. “For me, the truth was: I am capable of learning and I will learn more today. That calmed my anxiety down and helped me rewire, and that started creating resilience and that started creating a tenacious attitude, which is a much better thing to get addicted to [than negative thinking].”
Jewel credits this practice with helping her find happiness after a tough childhood. The singer grew up in Alaska, surrounded by people who used “relationships, drugs, [and] alcohol to try to numb and medicate feelings.” Her voice was her way out. At age 15, she got a vocal scholarship to a performing arts school in Michigan. But by age 18, she found herself homeless, shoplifting, and plagued by panic attacks. Determined not to become a “statistic”—”I was going to end up in jail or dead, in short order”—Jewel used mindfulness to take control of her mental health and life.
“You have to get rid of believing every single thought that comes into your head,” Jewel told Harris. “When I meditate, I just count [to
20]—one is an inhale, two is an exhale. The whole point is just to observe and be curious because that’s the state of mindfulness and of being present.”
Watch Jewel’s full interview with Dan Harris on “10% Happier” below.