Most of us experience anxious thoughts from time to time – whether it’s tension at work, unease in finances, or difficulties in relationships. Even the doubt that comes in a simple “what if” could increase anxiety levels. It’s normal to feel anxiety and yes, even fear, in uncertain situations.
You cannot avoid anxiety, but it is important to deal with it in healthy ways. That’s where the link between meditation and anxiety comes in.
Problems arise when anxiety overwhelms us and prevents us from moving forward in our lives. Prolonged anxiety is detrimental to your physical and mental health, causing symptoms like insomnia, irritability, and fatigue.
But we shouldn’t let fear keep us from living our lives and affect our well-being.
So how do we let go of anxious feelings? How do we rethink our approach to anxiety?
One powerful tool to consider is meditation. Meditation helps us reset and find a peaceful time for ourselves in the busy world. There are thousands of meditation practices from different traditions to choose from, so you can find a meditation style that suits your needs and daily routine.
For meditations that quell anxiety, we’re going to dive into the techniques of two specific branches – transcendental and mindfulness meditation.
TRANSCENDENTAL MEDITATION AND ANXIETY
THE HISTORY OF TRANSCENDENTAL MEDITATION
The Transcendental Meditation (or TM) technique is a form of meditation that uses a mantra to focus the mind. It was developed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the famed meditation guru of the Beatles, in the late 1970s. Since then, it has become one of the most widely practiced meditation techniques, with programs even being promoted in public schools.
POPULARITY AS A METHOD TO REGULATE STRESS & ANXIETY
There’s a good reason that TM is so popular. Compared to other meditation techniques, it’s a little easier to get into. You’re given a mantra by a teacher and you repeat that mantra to slow down your overactive mind. Unlike other types of meditation, you aren’t trying to focus awareness on an external object or gently observing other thoughts, both of which require much more practice. It’s a little more “effortless.” Your only action is to repeat your mantra over and over to create a quieter mental space by letting your mantra become the loudest thought in your brain.
Transcendental Meditation practitioners experience reduced stress and anxiety levels. In a study promoting employee development, employees who were taught TM felt a decrease in trait anxiety, job tension, fatigue, and even improved general health and workplace effectiveness. TM was also effective at helping students with ADHD cope with their symptoms by reducing stress and anxiety. When compared to regular relaxation techniques, TM was found to be significantly more effective in reducing anxiety levels in new practitioners.
TRANSCENDENTAL MEDITATION PRACTICE
If possible, find a Transcendental Meditation teacher to help you get started and assign you a mantra. You can do more research on a TM center near you by accessing their organization’s site: www.TM.org.
However, you can still use techniques from Transcendental Meditation on your own to manage anxiety. Here’s how:
- Think of a mantra for yourself – just a few, short words.
- Set aside 15-20 minutes for this mindfulness practice.
- Find a quiet, comfortable place where you can sit and close your eyes.
- Repeat your chosen mantra over and over for a few minutes until you feel your mind slowing down.
- After a while, you might feel your mantra change – get louder, get softer, faster or slower, or become clearer or more slurred – let it change. Other thoughts may be present in your mind, just quietly come back to your mantra if they become too overpowering.
- At the end of your meditation, keep your eyes closed for two minutes and revel in the silent moment.
The combination of deep breathing and mantra repetition activates the relaxation response. As with exercise and other meditation practices, these techniques become more effective with regular practice.
MINDFULNESS MEDITATION AND ANXIETY
THE HISTORY OF MINDFULNESS MEDITATION
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of focusing awareness on the present moment while non-judgmentally observing thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. The practice has Buddhist roots, but its application to stress and anxiety relief was made popular at the University of Massachusetts in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn who developed “mindfulness-based stress reduction.”
Additionally, there are elements of mindfulness in many other types of meditation. Though there are various techniques and methods for approaching mindfulness, the most important factor is focusing awareness without creating judgment.
MINDFULNESS & ANXIETY
The goal of mindfulness meditation is let go of emotions and reactions and to observe experiences with a detached perspective. Mindfulness teaches you to observe without assigning emotion to the situation – essentially observing with a blank slate.
In the face of anxiety, mindfulness teaches you be to aware of the present moment while remaining in control of the negative emotions and prevent them from heightening.
How does that work? Mindfulness meditation enhances your cognitive function through mental and mood training which can relieve anxiety and decrease stress levels.
Mindfulness also teaches practitioners to respond to stressful situations reflectively instead of reflexively, which counters other avoidance strategies and can positively affect anxiety, depression, and mood disorders.
In another study, mindfulness showed long term beneficial effects on anxiety as participants with generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorders were able to reduce symptoms with a mindfulness program and steadily maintain those reductions.
The slow and deep intake of breath that happens during mindfulness meditation also balances the body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic responses to stress and anxiety. Deep breathing triggers the relaxation response of the body, reducing the amount of stress hormones like cortisol that are released into the body when stress and anxiety occur.
Mindfulness can even help those with learning disabilities. Students who practiced mindfulness meditation decreased the anxiety associated with school-related stress and even improved social skills and academic outcomes.
Mindfulness meditation takes a little more practice, but incorporating it into your daily routine is a powerful way to take control back from anxiety and prevent the onset of panic attacks.
Bringing Consciousness into the Present Moment
The core tenet of mindfulness meditation is practicing awareness for the present moment. When you’re worrying about what could happen or what has happened, anxiety creeps up on you because you can’t control the past or the future. Instead, relieve yourself of anxious thoughts and try bringing consciousness to what’s happening right now. Ground yourself in the present moment. You can observe yourself breathing, observe the intricacies of objects around you, or pay attention to sensations in your body.
Hone in on something specific so you can quiet down racing thoughts. Take the time to be consciously observe your surroundings, your feelings, what’s really happening in the moment so the worries of past and future fall away.
Check In With Your Body
When you feel your heart racing, hands sweating, or shoulders tightening, take a moment to reconnect with your body. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction uses a technique called a body scan to individually check in with each part of the body. You can use the same technique too.
Start by lying back on a comfortable chair or down on a yoga mat. Let yourself start to relax. As you relax, observe the feeling of contact between your body and the chair or floor. Where do you feel the pressure? Where do you feel light? Bring attention to the different points of contact but don’t label them with any sort of emotion (like pain or discomfort).
Then start with your head and “scan” down the rest of your body. Take note of how each body part feels. Just like the first step, try not to label those feelings. If you’re sore, avoid characterizing the feeling as soreness – just observe that your body feels like “that.” When you take note of a tense spot, think of it for a bit and then simply move on. Use your breath to guide you.
Focusing on the body’s sensations will keep you grounded while giving you time to restart how you feel, release muscle tension, and find your breath.
Your breath plays an important role in dictating internal processes between your brain and body, which is why Spire focuses so much on breath. The good news is that breathing is an automatic function that we can control.
Mindful breathing means taking the reins back on this automatic body function and bringing awareness to each inhale and exhale. When you’re feeling anxious, you’ll feel your breath quicken. Instead of focusing on the anxiety and negative thoughts, notice your breath. Feel it come in, feel it come out. Let it slow down.
If you need help getting your breath back, consider using a breathing guide like our Visual Breath Guide. Guided meditations, visual or auditory, are particularly helpful in that they provide a technical “coach” that walks you through body scans and practices.
Mindfulness practice is a wonderful tool for stress relief too. Take a closer look at how mindfulness works to reduce stress with our beginner’s guide to Stress Reduction.
Less Anxiety, More Joy
When you stop letting anxiety prevent you from making decisions or moving forward, you open yourself up to more opportunities for happiness. Practicing either of these meditation techniques can help you with that. Regular meditation, with either of these methods, trains your brain to move past anxious moments and discover calm with each breath. Give meditation a try; it could lead to even more joy in your life.