Anxiety is a result of your body’s danger signals being activated when there is no ‘real’ threat to escape from. This triggers a fight or flight response that presents with symptoms of anxiety. About 40% of US adults¹ experience anxiety disorders. Mindful meditation is a medication-free way to reduce daily stress and anxiety symptoms.
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The fight-or-flight response is your body’s built-in natural life-saving mechanism. When your safety is threatened, part of your brain — the amygdala — signals that you are in danger to the rest of your body. This activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and prepares your body to fight or flee the threat.
When your body is in this state, the adrenal glands produce hormones called adrenaline and noradrenaline, resulting in a chain reaction that increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate to prepare you to escape danger.
However, when this system gets activated in situations where there is no “real” threat to your safety, you experience symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety can occur from thoughts, perceived threats, dysfunction of your stress response, or it can appear seemingly out of the blue.
Anxiety feels different for everyone, but some of the common symptoms include:
Hyperventilation (rapid breathing)
Feeling lightheaded or faint
Experiencing a stress response when there’s nothing to fight or flee from can be uncomfortable. So, how do you turn off the fight or flight response?
Research² has shown that mindfulness meditation can significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety and help you lower your stress response.
Mindfulness meditation is derived from ancient forms of meditation, such as Buddhist Vipassana meditation. The purpose of mindfulness training is to focus your mind on the present moment, detach from any destructive thoughts or feelings, and accept your emotions. Mindfulness meditation practice is an effective tool for lowering anxiety³, learning acceptance, and finding peace and inner calm.
The core concept of mindfulness meditation for anxiety is to bring awareness to the present by focusing on your heart rate, breathing, and body, allowing your thoughts and emotions to come and go without judgment.
Daily pranayama — breath regulation — is a core concept of yoga and an effective tool often used in mindfulness meditation. Deep breathing techniques are especially helpful for reducing anxiety as they create a calming response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. This system works in opposition to your SNS and fight or flight response.
Mindfulness meditation is a simple practice to learn. By making it a habit as part of your routine, you can practice it regularly to reap the immense benefits. You can also attend classes, online or in-person, where a seasoned practitioner guides you through mindfulness meditation techniques.
What do studies show?
Research has shown that meditation can significantly lower anxiety³ and obsessive thinking⁴. It can help you detach from your emotions so you can work through them without feeling overwhelmed. Mindfulness meditation can even change the structure⁵ of your brain in a positive way.
Just 10 minutes daily can support your brain to cope better with stress and improve your levels of empathy.
If your anxiety results from a negative experience, meditating on this stimulus can help alleviate anxiety.
Mindfulness meditation helps you better regulate your mood⁶ by affecting the brain's hippocampal region that deals with mood and emotions. In a study⁷ on the effects of meditation on the brain, people who engaged in meditation were found to have larger hippocampal regions, which may improve their emotional regulation.
Other benefits⁸ of mindfulness meditation include:
Less rumination (repetitive, negative thought patterns)
Better working memory
Increased positive mindset
It may help to pair your meditation with another habit to make it a regular part of your routine. This is known as habit stacking. It is thought that practicing meditation in the morning⁹ is the best way for it to become a habit. Try meditating after cleaning your teeth or making your bed in the morning.
Keep it short
When you first start mindfulness meditation, you don’t need to do it for long. Start with three to five minutes a day, and slowly increase it. Overall, 10 to 20 minutes a day is thought to be sufficient⁹.
Wear comfortable clothes
You don’t want to be pulling at your clothes when you’re meditating, so make sure to wear something loose and comfortable.
Set a timer
This way, you’ll know you’ve meditated for as long as you intended to, and you won't have to keep checking the time, which will interrupt your meditation. You can try free apps like Insight Timer that tell you when you’re halfway through and when your time is up. This helps you to keep track of how long you are meditating so you can increase the duration as you feel ready.
Get into a comfortable position
You may want to sit on a cushion with your legs crossed or lie on the floor. Just make sure you are in a stable position with either your feet or bottom on the ground. This helps you to ground yourself during the meditation and stay present.
You can choose to sit in the traditional meditation position. Sit with your legs crossed. Straighten your back, but it should not be stiff. Let your shoulders and head relax, and place your hands on your legs. Try sitting in this position first, but find a more comfortable position if it does not work for you.
Close your eyes and be present
Take deep breaths, let your thoughts and emotions sit in your mind, and take note of them. Closing your eyes helps you to focus on the present moment.
Focus on your breath
As you slowly breathe in, feel the air filling your diaphragm, then your chest. As you breathe out slowly, feel the air leaving your diaphragm. As you do this, you should be feeling your stomach — not just your chest — moving with your breath. You might find that your mind wanders a little, and your focus on your breath drops, so just gently shift your focus back to your breath.
When the time is up, slowly open your eyes
Pause for a second to notice how your body is feeling and see if you can identify any thoughts or emotions.
Increase the time
Once you can meditate for 20 minutes at a time, increase the duration. You can try adding in another practice in the evening as it is thought that two sessions of 20 minutes a day will give you the maximum benefits¹⁰, although it is also suggested that 10 minutes a day can be sufficient.
If you feel like continuing your meditation when the timer goes off, it is still best to stop meditating and simply meditate for a little longer next time.
It is important to acknowledge that developing a new habit is difficult. Try not to criticize yourself if you forget to meditate or find it challenging. You could reward yourself when you remember to do it or if you meditate for your goal time.
Try putting your phone on silent and away in a bag when walking somewhere. Take note of what you can see, hear, feel, smell, and maybe even taste as you walk.
Take your time
Avoid multitasking if you are prone to severe stress or anxiety when overwhelmed. Doing one task at a time will be more efficient and help alleviate some anxiety.
Avoid screens while eating
Instead of watching TV when eating dinner, try eating silently and focusing on each bite. Practice bringing your focus back to your food when your mind wanders. Try not to think back on your day or what tomorrow will bring. Simply focus on your food, such as the taste, smell, and how it feels in your mouth, for a few minutes while eating.
Move around if you need to
If you find you struggle to stay still when meditating, you could try gently stretching your body. Different yoga poses while still focusing on your breathing may ease the need to move and make the meditation more sustainable.
Regularly focus on your breathing throughout the day
You may find that practicing meditation for 20 minutes in one go every day is not sustainable for you. You could break it up into shorter meditation sessions instead, such as two or three minutes here and there when you feel anxious. If you are at work or school, you could close your eyes at your desk and focus on your breath.
Download a meditation app
If you find keeping to a meditation habit difficult or you want to look at the clock during your session, guided meditations can help. There are many apps you can download to build a meditation program that works for you.
These programs usually involve guided meditations in which someone talks you through the session, helping your mind stay focused on the meditation. This is also a great way to hold yourself accountable, as the apps can track when and how often you are completing your meditation sessions.
5-4-3-2-1 grounding method
If you find it difficult or boring to just focus on your breath and want something quick to help calm your anxiety, the 5-4-3-2-1 method may work for you. This method enables you to relax and bring awareness to your mind and body, which can help to slow your breathing down and reduce anxiety symptoms. To try this method, either in your head or out loud, list the following things:
Five things you can see
Four things you can feel
Three things you can hear
Two things you can smell
One thing you can taste
Mindfulness meditation can help to alleviate anxiety symptoms. Daily meditation may contribute to positive changes in the brain that result in a better mood and emotional regulation, giving you greater control over your anxiety.
If you struggle with anxiety or regularly feel stressed and anxious, adding just five minutes of mindfulness meditation to your daily routine will help you relax and improve your focus.
Anxiety disorders | National Alliance on Mental Illness
With mindfulness, life’s in the moment | Harvard University
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