An estimated 31 percent of adults in the United States experience anxiety at some point in their lives. But with (*gestures broadly*) all this going on, that number feels almost comically low.
Anxiety comes in a variety pack — but there are even more ways to cope. Meditation is one fantastic (and often free!) way to help take control of anxiety. Let’s dig into what makes this ancient practice work.
Meditation is an ancient practice to train your mind to detach from the not-so-good vibes and direct your thoughts to your body, your breath, and the present moment. It reduces worry and restores balance, calm, and focus.
Meditation aficionados refer to it as a practice. Sounds peaceful, right?
Types of meditation
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)
- This is a popular 8-week group program that combines mindfulness and yoga to connect the breath to the body, detach from anxious thoughts, and reduce stress.
- It introduces participants to the idea of “mindfulness,” shifting between focus and awareness to help identify thinking patterns and tension within.
- You’ll find programs like this at health centers all over the world. Beyond tackling stress and anxiety, it’s also used to manage health conditions such as immune disorders, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
- A narrator or teacher orally guides you through a meditation session.
- This is what you find on apps like Headspace and Calm.
- It’s great for beginners just starting to explore meditation.
- Focused meditation uses one of the five senses to maintain a calm focus.
- Listening to a gentle tone or counting with beads are common.
- Gentle movements such as yoga, walking, or tai chi can facilitate this kind of meditation.
- Movement can also help gain a general sense of well-being.
- Focusing on a repetitive sound can help to clear your mind.
- Using a mantra can be easier than focusing on breathing for some.
Transcendental Meditation® (TM®)
- The goal here is to go deep or *ahem* transcend into a state of relaxation or, at the very least, a state of restful alertness.
- You sit still with your eyes closed and repeat a mantra in your mind for 20 minutes. As intrusive thoughts come in, you return to the mantra.
- Mantras are given by certified instructors in a sacred process.
- This form of meditation was catapulted into mainstream culture by GOOP, Oprah, Howard Stern, and Ellen DeGeneres.
Meditation as stress relief: TTYL, stress!
A 2014 review of studies including more than 3,500 adults supports the anecdotal chatter that meditation programs do, in fact, reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and even pain.
The stress hormone cortisol activates cytokines (inflammation-inducing chemicals) that disrupt sleep, increase blood pressure, and fog up your brain.
It turns out that meditation — specifically MBSR — may be the antidote. In a small 2013 study, participants who did MBSR for 8 weeks had a less significant inflammatory response to stress than those who took part in other health-promoting activities.
Wonder if *your* stress is too legit to ever really quit? Research suggests that, compared with other forms of treatment, meditation has a stronger impact on people with high levels of anxiety.
How meditation lessens anxiety
A review of about 600 studies suggests that the TM® technique reduces anxiety and is most effective for folks with the highest levels of anxiety. Folks with chronic and severe anxiety showed a 40 percent decrease in anxiety and were still feeling the good vibes 3 years later.
But don’t count MBSR out. Research suggests that even just one session could be significantly better than regular stress management education at reducing anxiety in people with generalized anxiety disorder.
Research using MRI scans suggests that the amygdala — the part of your brain responsible for emotional perception — actually shrinks in response to meditation, becoming thicker and better at fending off anxiety. Aren’t brains amazing?!
Ready to give meditation a try? Here’s an example to start with:
- Find a quiet space where you’re not likely to be disturbed.
- Find a comfortable seated position on the floor or in a chair with your feet flat against the floor. Close your eyes.
- Scan your body for tension and any sensations. How do your feet feel against the floor? How does your back feel against the chair?
- Next, start to bring your attention to your breath. Notice your body inhaling and exhaling. Don’t try to change your breath — simply observe.
- Your mind might start to wander — that’s OK. When you feel your focus shifting, pull it back to your breath.
- If your anxiety starts to bubble up, let it. Acknowledge each anxious thought, and then release it and go back to your breath.
- After 10 minutes, start to wiggle your fingers and toes, awakening your body as you bring yourself back to the present moment.
- Finally, open your eyes. Take stock of how you’re feeling, physically and mentally. Don’t judge, just observe.
Meditation isn’t the easiest to try when your brain is used to being mired in worry or anxiety. You may also have the expectation that you’ll be really good at it right away, when it’s something that can take time to master.
Here are some tips if you’re struggling to maintain that meditative state.
Make it a part of your routine
Try finding a specific time to practice meditation and make sure you’re optimizing your space for it. If you find an element of your session that works — i.e., dim lights, laying down, a lit candle — keep incorporating it.
Try guided meditation
Whether it’s with a teacher or a smartphone app, listening to someone to help guide your thoughts or breathing can be remarkably helpful.
A little progress is still progress
Take meditation one breath at a time. If you’re aiming for long sessions of meditation, try shorter ones to start.
If you’re mind wanders sometimes, that’s OK. Try for less and less each session. Meditation takes practice and a bit of progress each time is all that’s needed to become better at it.
Ready to go all in with meditation? These are some solid starters:
If you’re already obsessed with “Yoga with Adriene”…
Begin your meditation practice with something familiar: her 14-minute anxiety meditation.
If you have 15 minutes and need to escape the rat race…
This guided meditation from the podcast Breathe People was designed to tackle anxiety, stress, and burnout.
If you have 30 minutes to kill and you need to really clean house…
This full-service meditation for anxiety and stress from Mindful can help bring you back down to Earth.
If your anxiety is starting to build and you need to walk away…
Give this 8-minute meditation a listen and emerge from that hall closet/bathroom stall/parked car as the centered badass you are.
If your anxiety is raging and you need to fall asleep, like, now…
Here’s a 3-hour session (with a casual 2.5 million views) to help you off to dreamland.
Meditation is an ancient practice to train your mind to detach from daily stressors while increasing awareness and focus. And while it’s helpful after a really crappy day, meditation is meant to be practiced consistently.
Several major medical reviews suggest that meditation and mindfulness-based therapies are effective at reducing feelings of stress and anxiety.
Meditation triggers physical changes in your brain and alters how your body responds to stress, so it can be just as effective as many medications.
Fortunately, affordable (or free) meditation apps and other digital resources are plentiful. Let’s Zen out!