As a part of the orchestra of human emotions, anxiety is a feeling that affects us all. Especially in today’s fast-paced, results-oriented work environment, anxiety is a daily occurrence for working professionals. It is a state characterized by a mixture of feelings of worry, apprehension, fear, restlessness, and stress. Like all states of mind, anxiety is also reflected as states of body. It can express itself through fatigue, headaches, sweating, shaking, and muscle tension.
Meditation is an ancient practice which has been used across multiple cultures and spiritual traditions. It is a tool used to quiet the mind and enhance focus on an inner state. Many people have been seeking to incorporate meditation into their lives for its psychological and even physical benefits. But can meditation be used specifically to address anxiety? The answer isn’t clear cut, and this article will seek to shed light on the answer.
What is Anxiety
Just like other negative states, anxiety isn’t all bad – in fact, it can be helpful and productive. It can give you that needed pressure to push through that final deadline or complete a task that you’ve otherwise been putting off. It can fire-up a creative impulse. But these are only helpful in appropriate contexts.
Which contexts would this be?
The answer lies at the beginning, when humans had to fend off dangerous predators and survive in a rough natural environment. Being anxious in these situations heightened awareness and readied the body for a quick fight-or-flight in response to threats. After all, it would be strange that the human body evolve no emotional and physiological response to the threat of a hungry tiger.
Anxiety becomes debilitating when it occurs in situations which should not warrant feelings of worry, apprehension, fear, restlessness and stress. In today’s world, prolonged anxiety is usually not a reasonable response to most situations. Anxiety is often unwarranted in modern stressful situations.
But with the human mind and body hardwired the way it is, the body will respond with anxiety to situations which it perceives as dangerous, even if that is not the case. So, if you perceive being late to a meeting is a serious and grave situation, your body will respond with anxiety. For the body, fear is fear. It’s not the body’s job to analyze a situation and assess the necessity of producing anxiety. It hinges on what the mind interprets as frightening.
With a work culture that induces high levels of stress and a society provide poor support for alleviating anxiety, the mind is constantly assessing situations as fearful. Partially as a result, anxiety disorders are common in the developed world. Anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million adults in the United States alone. Worldwide, approximately 20% of persons who receive primary health care have anxiety disorders.
Anxiety disorders are affecting women more than men, with 33% of women experiencing an anxiety disorder as compared to 22% men. Researchers theorize that this is due to a combination of hormonal fluctuations, brain chemistry and upbringing: women feel responsible for the happiness of others, and so have an added layer of stress to deal with.
Anxiety disorder can sometimes climax in the form of panic attacks. These are sudden, intense feelings of anxiety and fear that cause a physical fight-or-flight response. Your breathing may heighten; you may feel pain in your chest and vision may start to tunnel. These are all parts of the fight-or-flight response. Excessive anxiety results in an unpleasant state, both of mind and body.
The Effects of Anxiety on Human Wellness
Anxiety disorder has multiple ill-effects on your mind and body. On a physical level, those suffering from excessive anxiety may find themselves afflicted with the following symptoms:
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Sweating or flushing of the skin
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty sleeping
- Changes in appetite
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
Emotionally, you may find yourself afflicted with edginess, sadness, depression and/or irritability.
Dealing effectively with anxiety is important. But how?
There are several medicines on the market which are prescribed for those suffering from high levels of anxiety. Sometimes, these medical solutions are essential. However, if you are looking to take some additional steps to supplement your current treatment, or you are looking to manage anxiety before it gets out of hand, there is a solution outside of the strictly medical context.
And increasingly, people have been turning towards this natural method of stress and anxiety reduction. This promising treatment is the age-old practice of meditation.
The Science Behind Meditation
Meditation is prominently recognized as one of the major practices of Buddhism. Buddha recommended meditation to his disciples as a part of the path to achieving enlightenment. The “8-fold path” to enlightenment involved, in addition to extensive meditation, prescriptions to do good and serve others. Per Buddha, only through meditation was a person able to achieve enlightenment, a complete stillness of the mind and inner peace.
But the Buddha was certainly not the only spiritual leader to promote meditation as part of a spiritual order. Indeed, nearly every spiritual tradition incorporates a practice that can be characterized as meditative or meditation. Meditation is an ancient tradition dating back to over 3,500 years ago – even prayer is a type of quiet meditation.
Despite its longevity, it’s only within the last 50 years that the scientific community has been studying meditation systematically. In this short amount of time, the research has uncovered impressive potential and even stunning feats of meditation.
In one example, Buddhist monks have been recorded controlling their body temperatures through a meditative practice called “g-tummo”. In controlled scientific tests, experienced monks could dry cold and moist sheets placed around their bodies within an hour. Witnesses of the experiment report seeing steam emerge from the sheets as they dried. The monks’ body temperatures were measured to rise as much as 17 degrees Celcius.
How is this possible? No one quite understands the biological mechanisms behind meditation just yet. But study after study are suggesting that meditation has far-reaching benefits, including for pain reduction, addiction and, as described below, anxiety.
Meditation as a Cure for Anxiety?
In 2014, the Journal of the American Medical Association conducted a sweeping review of different meditation techniques’ effects on psychological stress and well-being. The review considered a wide variety of meditative techniques that emphasized mindfulness, concentration, and automatic self-transcendence. Prominently, these meditation programs were mantra and mindfulness meditation. Mantra meditation consists of chanting mantra and focusing on it to achieve a meditative state. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing your awareness on the present moment, while non-judgmentally observing your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
The review include 47 reviews looking at the effects of meditation on 3515 patients. The review is important for anyone considering meditation as a treatment for anxiety.
The results showed that not all meditation types are the same. Mantra meditation programs did not have strong evidence that it improved anxiety levels and anxiety disorders. However, mindfulness meditation programs showed a significant improvement in anxiety, depression, and pain.
These effects can be achieved without spending too much time meditating – the review included studies where participants meditated for as little as 10 minutes a day while still seeing positive effects. Few studies recommended participants meditate fewer than four times a week, however, so it to get the most out of your meditation practice, aim to meditate as consistently as you can.
In conclusion, there is good evidence to support the use meditation for anxiety reduction, but the evidence certainly does not point to a panacea. While a useful tool, it seems that meditation can only be one part of a more complete stress-reduced lifestyle.
How To Meditate For Anxiety Reduction
To start with mindfulness meditation, just follow these steps:
- Find a quiet spot, empty of distractions.
- Set a timer for the duration you want to meditate. Start with 10 minutes a day and move up from there.
- Sit on a chair or on the floor, whichever is more comfortable.
- Close your eyes and focus on your breath, on where it feels the strongest. When thoughts enter your mind, don’t reject them. Simply acknowledge them and gently return your attention to your breath.
It sounds simple, but you may find that it is challenging to simply observe breath. The more you pay attention to your breath, the more you may start to want to control it. You may find that simply breathing naturally while observing it neutrally takes practice.
For many, meditating in silence may be too difficult. If that includes you, your practice can be improved by incorporating a guided meditation to carry you through those 10 minutes. These include phone apps, such as Headspace and Breathe, which will not only offer some guidance, but also motivation to keep on going.
What’s great about Spire is that you can see exactly what is going on when meditate. You can observe your heartbeat decreasing, your breath stabilizing and smoothing out, and your focus sharpening. It’s an unprecedented and satisfying way to get feedback on your practice. What’s more, Spire will show your improved states of mind and body as you continue meditating day by day, giving you encouragement to keep on going.
Daily meditation might seem like an impractical use of time. However, in an age of endless distractions and heightened stress, incorporating practices to re-focus your mind is important. Think about the time you waste lost in thought, unfocused, and scatter-brained. With that in mind, it’s easy to understand how meditation yields impressive dividends for a relatively small investment in time. Carve out ten minutes today for your first meditation session. Your mind will thank you!