Can you really meditate to relieve anxiety? There are many studies and findings that show how using mindfulness meditations really can help alleviate anxiety and stress. Why? There are many reasons as listed below. The best part? It is easy, it does not take much time and everyone can do it.
Characterized by constant feelings of tension, negative thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure, anxiety is a psychological condition that can be controlled through regular meditation. Studies, as well as user reviews, point to mindfulness meditation being the best meditation to combat anxiety followed by mantra or transcendental meditation.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” You would agree with Hamlet on this if you are suffering from anxiety. Getting trapped in the vicious cycle of automatic negative thinking is something that every anxiety patient can relate to.
American Psychological Association defines anxiety as an “emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure”.1 People with anxiety often avoid certain situations out of worry. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or rapid heartbeat.
Let’s take a closer look at the physiology of anxiety. Among 100 billion neurons that form a complex web of message transmission or neurotransmission, there are two neurotransmitters–gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and serotonin–that play a crucial role in anxiety. It is when the levels of these chemicals go down that one experiences symptoms of anxiety like worry, restlessness, nervousness, insomnia, etc.
People with anxiety are often advised to meditate. Those who have paid heed to it have found relief in the practice. Wonder why? One of the important characteristics of an anxious mind is racing thoughts or concerns mostly about the past or the future. Consider this: A normal mind thinks up about 70000 thoughts per day. But an anxious mind thinks up an additional one negative thought every second!3 This is where meditation helps. Meditation quiets the mind and centers it in the present. A regular meditator is able to detach himself from the thoughts and focus on the now. So instead of dwelling on yesterday’s tragedies or tomorrow’s troubles, meditation helps you concentrate on the present pleasant moments.
Most meditative techniques emphasize on mindfulness, concentration, and automatic self-transcendence. Techniques like transcendental meditation and mindfulness meditation are found to be useful in dealing with anxiety.
In one of the studies on the physiological effect of transcendental meditation, it was found that the oxygen consumption and heart rate decreased during meditation while the skin resistance increased. Even the electroencephalogram taken during meditation showed specific changes in the brain proving that meditation has practical applications.
In another study on the effect of mindfulness meditation on the brain, the brain electrical activity of the subjects before and immediately after the meditation and also after 4 weeks of an 8-week training program showed significant increase in left-sided anterior activation associated with positive effect in meditators.
These go on to prove that mindfulness meditation is perhaps the best meditation technique to combat anxiety, followed by mantra or transcendental meditation. But how does one do these?
We often hear people complaining about their unsuccessful attempts at meditation. That’s most often because there is a misconception that meditation involves thoughtlessness; they are trying to quell the thoughts while meditating. Mindfulness is not thinking, interpreting or evaluating. It is mind’s nonjudgmental way of observing the things that happen around it.
How to Meditate To Relieve Anxiety
Here’s how you do mindfulness meditation:
- The first and foremost thing to do is to choose an ideal location for meditation. Choose a spot where you are least likely to be disturbed.
- Equally important is the time you choose to meditate. Find a quiet time. Start with 5 to 10 minutes of practice, gradually increasing the duration as you get comfortable with the practice.
- Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight. You can even take the support of a wall or a pillow to prop your back up if you are not used to sitting upright for long.
- Close your eyes and focus on your breath; pay attention to your inhalations and exhalations. Alternatively, you can chant a mantra and focus on it instead of your breath.
- It is natural for thoughts to come and affect your concentration. Let the thoughts flow; observe them in a nonjudgmental way without dwelling on them. Label them “thoughts” and let them go. When your focus shifts, bring your mind back to your breath.
- Observe the smells, sounds, and sensations around. Label them “smell”, “sound”, etc and passively observe them without indulging in them or the thoughts around them.
- Slowly move your attention to subtle body sensations like tingling, itching and let them pass. Similarly, observe your body sensations from head to toe.
- It is natural for emotions to interfere. Simply observe these emotions without judging them. Name the emotions as “happy”, “crazy”, etc in a relaxed manner. At any time your focus shifts, bring your mind back to your breath.
- Stay with the practice as long as you can. Slowly increase the duration as you get comfortable with it.