According to the World Health Organisation, up to 18.2% of the global population struggle with some form of anxiety. It affects a huge amount of us, with many turning to medication to manage symptoms.
While medication works for some people, it might not be the right choice for everyone. There are many self-help techniques we can use to manage our anxiety.
Studies continue to show the benefits of meditation for anxiety. In this article, we’re going to explore why meditation helps with anxiety and run through a meditation exercise you can easily practice from home, or once things start to open up again, really from anywhere! But first…
What exactly is Anxiety?
There are many different types of anxiety. Anxiety is experienced as a feeling of worry, fear or doubt. Anxiety can be felt mildly, or severely. We all experience anxiety at a mild level in certain situations, it’s a natural survival instinct to protect us from perceived danger.
In severe cases of anxiety, the sufferer may find it hard to control their worries. Extreme bouts of anxiety can lead to trouble breathing, panic attacks, and can even manifest in physical reactions, like shingles or rashes. People with severe anxiety may struggle to manage their life, as they are frequently battling with feelings of intense anxiety.
Anxiety is a symptom experienced for people with certain conditions, such as Panic Disorder, Phobias, PTSD, Social Anxiety and more.
Anxiety is frequently experienced for people who already struggle with their mental health. Many people who suffer from depression also struggle with anxiety. Likewise for people with eating disorders and other mental health issues.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder, otherwise referred to as GAD, is a long-term condition that causes sufferers to feel anxious about many aspects of life, rather than feeling anxious over one specific thing, like Social Anxiety. In the UK alone, it is estimated that 1 in every 25 people have Generalised Anxiety Disorder.
What Causes Anxiety?
Although we don’t have a definitive answer for what causes some people to experience anxiety worse than others, research has shown that it could be due to a few different factors…
- Overactivity in areas of the brain that are involved in emotions and behaviours
- Genes you inherit from parents – research has shown that you’re x5 times more likely to develop Generalised Anxiety Disorder if you have a close relative with the condition
- A chemical imbalance in the brain: Serotonin and Noradrenaline, involved in the control and regulation of mood
- History of stressful and/or traumatic experiences
- Painful long-term health conditions, such as arthritis
- History of substance abuse or misuse
What is Meditation?
Meditation seems to be a somewhat misunderstood practice.
Simply put, meditation is a mental exercise that trains us in attention and awareness. It offers a healthy sense of perspective to practitioners. It isn’t about becoming someone else, getting ‘zen’ or ‘aligning your chakras’.
It isn’t about ‘silencing the mind’ either, as this is an impossible task. It’s natural for thoughts to frequently pop into the mind. Meditation, rather, helps us to clear away the ‘noise’ and ‘chatter’. It changes the tone of our inner dialogue. For many, meditation actually helps make our inner voice a bit kinder.
Practising meditation is simply the practice of observing each thought as they come into the mind, and allowing them to pass through without any judgement, and without resolving them.
When another thought pops into the mind, we allow it to pass through, bringing our awareness to our breath, to the sounds around (without trying to identify them), or to a guided meditation.
If we try to meditate, we’re meditating. A huge misconception of meditation is that you aren’t meditating unless you are able to quieten the thoughts for long periods of time and be transported to another realm.
While practitioners can have these sort of ‘euphoric’ experiences while meditating, it’s safe to assume those who do have been exercising their ‘meditation muscle’ for a while, so naturally, they’ll have found techniques to deepen their practice.
If you’re meditating, and your mind is racing, and you’re noticing your mind racing, and you start to think about dinner and what to cook and how many emails you need to reply to after your practice and ‘I wonder how long I’ve been sitting here’, guess what?
It can be frustrating when we have practices like this where our thoughts just don’t seem to slow down, but that’s all just part of the practice! That is the practice of meditation.
Meditation is a skill that can be learnt through regular practice and practice with a teacher. If we look at the brain as a muscle that needs working out, meditation is an exercise we can offer the brain to get better at processing emotions, gaining new perspectives, and de-stressing.
How does Meditation Help Anxiety?
There are a few reasons why meditation is so beneficial for those struggling with anxiety, but first, let’s talk about what the science knows…
What Science tells us
We think of mental and physical as two separate things, however, all mental activity has a physical correlation in the brain. This is the aspect that has been studied in relation to anxiety.
So what’s physically happening when we meditate?
People who suffer from chronic worrying often display increased reactivity in the amygdala, the area of the brain associated with regulating emotions, including fear.
At Stanford University, Neuroscientists conducted an experiment and found that people who practised mindfulness meditation for eight weeks were more able to turn down the reactivity of this area in the brain.
At Harvard, other researchers found that mindfulness practices can actually physically reduce the number of neurons in this fear-triggering part of the brain.
Studies have shown that meditating for as little as 10 minutes increases the brain’s alpha waves (associated with relaxation) and decreases depression and anxiety.
Meditation for Anxiety in Practice
People with anxiety tend to sit with their ruminations and allow them to spiral. Practising meditation offers a tool in the toolbox to turn to whenever the thoughts start racing. Instead of allowing ourselves to get swept away into the anxiety spiral, we can choose to get into a meditative state, sitting in silence or with music to centre ourselves and focus on the space between each thought.
After regular practice, we start to understand that we are not our thoughts and feelings and that it is possible to detach the self from our thoughts and emotions.
Meditation isn’t easy, and the days it’s the hardest are the days we don’t want to practice at all. ‘I can’t meditate’ can roughly be translated to ‘I have too many thoughts running through my mind that cause me anxiety, and I don’t want to sit with them, because the thought of that makes me anxious.’ The irony is, those of us who ‘can’t meditate’ or don’t want to or don’t have time to meditate tend to be the ones who will benefit the most from meditation.
Regular practice truly makes meditation a key management tool for those with anxiety.
Let’s give it a go now, shall we?
Start by getting comfortable. Sit down on a chair with both feet firmly on the ground, hip-distance apart. You can place your hands on your thighs with the palms facing up, or down. Straighten the back and tuck the chin slightly to keep the spine nice and long.
Take a deep inhale, drawing the shoulders towards your ears, and on the exhale, roll the shoulders down the back. Relax the shoulders, the arms, the hands, the hips, the legs and the feet. Relax your whole body.
Bring your attention to your face. Are your teeth pressed together? If so, part the teeth. Part the lips slightly and remove the tongue from the roof of the mouth to relax the jaw.
Allow your breath to effortlessly pass in and out of your body. Take a few deep breaths to get started, sighing out through the mouth.
Relax the eyelids, or if it’s comfortable for you (and if you’re done reading), you can close the eyes.
Notice how you’re feeling in this moment. Are you stressed? Content? Worried? Anxious? Angry? There are no right or wrong answers. Simply notice how you’re feeling without trying to change anything.
Now, bring your awareness back to your breath, again, without trying to change it. Focus on the air travelling into your lungs, and back out into the world.
When we notice thoughts coming back into the mind, simply greet them without any judgement, and then let the thought go, moving onto the next, and the next, until you can remind yourself to bring the awareness back to your breath.
Sit here for a few moments.
Are you holding any tension anywhere? Bring your awareness back to the face, relax the area around the eyes. Tuck the chin slightly. Come back to the breath.
The mind will start to wander again. Remember, this is normal, it’s all part of the practice. When we catch ourselves in thought, without judgement, we allow that thought to pass on by, like a cloud in the sky.
Sit with yourself for as long as you feel comfortable, and then for a couple of minutes longer.
To come out of your meditation practice, lift the corners of the mouth, and then bring some gentle movement back into the body. Start wiggling your fingers and toes. Gently rock your head from side to side. We can tuck the chin towards the chest before opening the eyes and lifting the gaze.
Whether you sat in your meditation for 1 minute or 1000 minutes, good job! You meditated!
Whether you were transported to another realm, transformed into a bird flying through a mountainous landscape, or you couldn’t stop thinking about literally everything, CONGRATULATIONS! You meditated! Remember to do it again tomorrow, and you’ll be on your way to becoming a Levitating Yogi with a score of 1,000000!
… I’m kidding, of course. The only prizes you’ll win from regularly practising meditation is a sense of calm, a new perspective and a tool to turn to when life gets too anxiety-inducing.
Something to remember
Meditation can be a frustrating practice, but for every frustrating meditation, you will be working out that important brain muscle and encouraging the amygdala to SHUT UP! (that area of the brain responsible for emotion and in particular, fear).
Anxiety is a complicated, difficult disorder to manage. Remember that you are never alone, there’s always help out there available to you. Speak with your doctor openly about treatment, explore your options and do what works for YOU.
We’re all different, if treatment for these types of complicated disorders looked the same for every person, well, I wouldn’t be writing this and you probably wouldn’t need to be reading it! Take your time figuring out what works for you and always engage in open discussions with your health care providers.
Author Bio: Gabie Lazareff is a certified health coach, yoga teacher and freelance nutrition & wellness writer. After years of navigating the messy waters of mental health, her mission is to share her experiences and advice with others.