Meditation has many benefits, including decreased anxiety. Developing a meditation practice, then, offers a portable strategy that can complement an anxiety treatment plan created with the support of a healthcare provider. Mindfulness meditation in particular can provide an effective way to manage mental and physical symptoms. Here is an introduction to some benefits of meditation for anxiety and how to get started.
Meditation for Anxiety
Standard medical treatments for anxiety include anti-anxiety medications, cognitive behavioral therapy, or a combination of both. Psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Hoge says that mindfulness meditation makes perfect sense as an additional component to traditional treatments:
“People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power. They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit. Mindfulness meditation trains people to see these thoughts differently. Instead of creating unproductive and needless worry, a thought can be identified as simply another thought — one that does not define a person’s core self.”
Neuroscientists at Stanford University found that people who practiced mindfulness meditation for eight weeks were more able to turn down the reactivity of the amygdala — the section of the brain where chronic worriers often display increased reactivity. This area of the brain is associated with regulating emotions, most-notably fear. Other researchers from Harvard used brain scans to show that this fear-triggering part of the brain actually became smaller in those who practiced mindfulness meditation.
While there is always more to learn about how meditation affects the brain, this research provides many points to consider when designing a treatment plan for anxiety with your doctor.
How to Get Started with Mindfulness Meditation for Anxiety
Mindfulness meditation is an easy practice to get started with, especially for beginners, as it does not require any special training. While there are many mindfulness meditation strategies to choose from, having go-to techniques to reconnect with your mind, body, and surroundings is a great way to find balance with anxiety.
Reclaiming the mind from anxious thoughts is a challenging task. The soothing compassion of a loving-kindness meditation is a beneficial practice to work with as you refocus your mind towards positivity. To practice this meditation for anxiety, begin by sitting comfortably and taking a deep breath, then move through the following steps:
- Send well-wishes to yourself by repeating a meaningful phrase (or several) either silently or aloud. Some options to consider:
- May I feel protected and safe
- May my love for myself and others flow boundlessly
- May my physical body provide me with strength
- May my life unfold smoothly with ease
- May I be peaceful and happy, at ease in body and mind
- Repeat your chosen phrase(s) again, stopping after each one to take a deep breath. As you breathe, feel the meaning of each wish you send yourself. You can also try linking your phrase(s) to the rhythm of the breath if that feels better.
- Continue to repeat them as many times as you wish, paying attention to any calming you experience in your mind.
The mindfulness meditation strategy of body scanning is useful as a starting point to address the mind-body connection of anxiety. According to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teacher Trish Magyari, the purpose of body scanning is “to bring awareness to each part of our body sequentially, to see how it is today — not to check in to change or judge the body, which we’re apt to do, but just to experience it and see what’s there.”
This practice can help you recognize how the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as muscle tension, headaches, and twitching feel in the body. Consistent practice with body scanning can help you approach these symptoms with more compassion as you encounter them.
Trish’s process of body scanning starts by lying down in bed or on a comfortable mat, then moving through the following sequence:
- Get grounded. Notice the parts of the body in contact with the mat. Tune into any areas that are holding tension and slowly relax them.
- Set your intention. Resolve to be present and let go of the past and future. Meet what you find in the body with friendliness.
- Begin the scan. Starting with the left foot, notice and experience any sensations. Once a body part has been scanned, let it fade from awareness, and move onto the next. Move up to the ankle, the calf, the knee, the thigh. Cross over the lower torso, travel down the right leg and start again at the right foot, and repeat, traveling up the body, part by part, until you reach the head.
- Connect it all together. Feel the head connected to the neck, the neck connected to the torso, the torso connected to the arms, and so on. The final step is to feel the skin around the whole body. Notice the sensations on your skin — temperature, texture, etc.
After reconnecting with the mind and body during periods of anxiety, it is useful to recalibrate to your surroundings. While it is common for the mind to race when experiencing anxiety, it can lead to becoming “stuck” in your head; causing a disconnect from the environment around you. This mindful observation meditation can help you become present in the current environment and provide a single point of focus as you meditate.
- Choose an object from within your immediate environment and focus on observing it for a minute or two.
- Relax into watching for as long as your concentration allows.
- Visually explore every aspect of its formation without making judgments about its appearance.
Staying grounded and present when feelings of anxiety arise takes practice. The more that we work with meditation for anxiety, the more natural it becomes. To learn additional ways to approach anxiety, check out the best mindfulness exercises for anxiety, and to go deeper with your meditation, try these three ways to deepen your meditative state.