For many people anxiety is a daily occurrence. Many don’t even know they are anxious. They feel stressed. Maybe they have a vague sense that something isn’t right. They can’t quite put their finger on what the problem is. Some people feel something in their body. They get a headache. Or their chest feels tight. But other people get angry or explode for no reason. Does this describe you? If so, you may be one of the 40 million Americans that experience anxiety at some point in their lives. What can you do about it? Mindfulness meditation can help relieve anxiety. How does meditation work? What sort of meditations are helpful for anxiety? Let’s explore some of these questions.
The solution that most Americans reach for is a pill. Many people turn to medication. And for many, drugs can help relieve symptoms. But they don’t remove the underlying cause. As I’ve written elsewhere, testing can reveal the underlying physiological causes. But what if there is nothing measurably wrong with your body. Now what? Meditation may be able to help.
For many people, anxiety is a common occurrence. They know they are anxious. They know what it feels like and it’s not comfortable. They can’t sit still. Their focus is terrible. They are antsy. They might even feel a little agitated. Focusing on anything is difficult.
Other people don’t know they are anxious. They are agitated. They may get into a fight with friends or loved ones. Or they mindlessly eat. Meditation can help break these patterns.
Meditation for Anxiety
It used to be that when meditation was brought up, one’s thoughts went to crosslegged monks on a mountain top. But meditation has become common in the US. The National Institute of Health estimates that about 18 million adults practice meditation on a regular basis.
So what exactly is meditation? It is the act of calming one’s mind and bringing attention to one thing. It could be counting breaths or watching a candle. Every time your attention drifts off you bring your attention back to that one thing. It is a state of calm alertness but more than concentration.
Concentration may be focus on one object. Reading may be concentration, but it isn’t meditation. There is a calm stillness to meditation. You just watch. You watch your breathing, you watch your thoughts. There is no attachment to anything. Writing could be a form of meditation. As I write at this moment, it is like meditation. I am concentrating and watching my mind. But I have an agenda. I want to be sure to cover certain topics. My attachment precludes me from meditating. Meditation is about letting go of outcomes. You are just still. And if you can’t be still, you notice that.
Meditation brings many health benefits. The most obvious is stress reduction. But some research has shown that meditation helps other health problems too. These include lowering blood pressure, improving IBS symptoms, and relieving depression and anxiety. It doesn’t help everyone, and I’ll get to that in a moment. But it does appear to change brain circuits involved with regulating emotions. This will help reduce inflammatory and stress hormones. In theory, meditation sounds great.
But how do you meditate if you’re anxious? We’ve already figured out that you can’t sit still! Sometimes you can’t calm your thoughts down. And sometimes, the act of meditating can make you feel worse. When I was studying counseling psychology, I had a supervisor, Gail Sher, who is a Buddhist. She was an avid meditator. She advised against prescribing meditation for people with anxiety because it often made things worse. They might become more anxious trying to meditate. So how can one benefit from meditation if one is anxious? There are several options. Let’s run through a quick list.
Breath work: Meditation is about slowing down. When we are anxious, everything tends to speed up. Slow down your breath and see if that helps. Sometimes one minute of steady breathing – an inhale for 6 seconds followed by an exhale for 6 seconds – can help. Often, when one is anxious, it’s because the brain’s alarm response is on over-drive. Simple breath work can be enough to start sending signals from the heart to the brain to turn off the alarm response.
Take a moment to feel your body: Don’t try to push the sensations away. Just feel the anxiety. Notice how jittery you feel. Or notice the tightness in your chest. Just feel what you are feeling in your body in the moment. Don’t judge it and don’t try to change it. If you have experienced a lot of trauma in your life, this may be difficult to do on your own. Many people who have experienced trauma have difficulty feeling their bodies. If that’s the case, try another method. And get help from a qualified trauma specialist.
Listen to the sounds outside: If you can get into nature and listen to the sound of birds, waves, or running water, that can be healing. Many of my patients report feeling less anxious after walking in the woods.
Be mindful of what you are doing: Focus on one task and do just that task with full attention. It can be almost anything, so long as it has your full attention. But it should be something that doesn’t stress you out. For example, don’t try to balance your checkbook if that makes you stressed, and be mindful of that. Do something you like to do, but do it with your full attention.
If you know why you are anxious, you can talk over the issue with a friend. Maybe you have been ruminating or worrying about something. Getting an outside perspective can help ..
Focus on the Anxiety: For some people experiencing the anxiety can be extremely liberating. Often, it is the avoidance of the discomfort that makes it worse. Feel the anxiety. Feel what your body feels like anxious. Notice how you have difficulty breathing. Don’t try to change it. Just let it be there without judgment.
Avoiding judgment is one of the most important things for anxiety. It’s OK to feel anxious. It’s OK to experience whatever it is underneath the anxiety. Anxiety isn’t truly an emotion. It’s a state of not feeling an emotion. It’s more rumination on something that isn’t happening in the moment. And that is why getting into the moment through meditation or other means can be so helpful.
If you have trouble with these techniques or meditation it may be that something else is out of balance. It could be something in the brain or the body. Neurofeedback and HeartMath can be extremely useful. LENS neurofeedback can help train your mind to be less reactive to situations. HeartMath is biofeedback that helps people use breath and good feelings to bring body systems into alignment. Both are powerful in gaining some of the benefits of meditation without meditating. Of course, there could be a biochemical imbalance, but I don’t recommend medication. Simple blood and urine tests may uncover the imbalance and help you find balance with a simple supplement regimen.
Anxiety is a big problem in America at the moment. I see many patients with this problem and/or other mental health issues. Fortunately, there is help available without drugs. Meditation may be a good solution for many. But if it makes your anxiety worse, stop. Try one of the techniques above. If those don’t work, get professional help. It may be that you will need it anyway. But mindfulness has helped many people all over. Don’t let anxiety stop you from being your best self.