It seems obvious, but if it were easy, we’d all do it!
I know from personal experience that meditation is not usually the first thing I turn to when I’m feeling anxious. Even after years of practicing on and off, meditation and taking deep breaths are usually the last thing on my mind when I’m having a panic attack or struggling to get through work due to anxious thoughts.
Here are some of the ways that mindfulness can help:
- It helps you learn to stay with difficult feelings without analyzing, suppressing, or encouraging them.
- It allows you to safely explore the underlying causes of your stress and worry.
- It helps you create space around your worries so they don’t consume you.
So what are you waiting for? Let’s dive a little deeper into our anxious thoughts and find some ways to melt some of that stress away!
Why are we anxious?
This will vary from person to person. We all get anxious sometimes. It’s our body’s natural response to stress. This is a natural and healthy feeling… to a certain extent. So when do we know this isn’t normal or has surpassed a healthy amount of stress?
Anxiety is defined by persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor. It can lead to similar symptoms as stress, such as insomnia, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, muscle tension, and irritability.
You may get this anxious feeling on your first day of school, while prepping for a job interview, or when giving a speech.
Some reasons for anxiety can be that your body is releasing too many stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol). You may experience this anxiety or stress due to a big event or even a few smaller stressful life situations. A death in the family would be a big event, especially if you don’t see it coming. But regardless of the time or circumstance, a death would be extremely difficult and stressful. A stressful work situation could consist of many small instances where you are finding you are not getting what you need, or perhaps you are dealing with a boss who likes to micromanage and colleagues who are harassing you.
For a completely different person, neither big nor small stressors may be the cause. Some personality types are simply more prone to anxiety disorders than others. Some of these disorders include, but are not limited to Agoraphobia, Anxiety Disorder due to a medical condition, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Selective Mutism (children), Separation Anxiety, Social Anxiety, and more.
So what can we do?
This is where meditation comes in. You may know this word from its roots in Buddhist philosophy, or you may imagine a room full of people seated cross-legged in silence. Neither is right or wrong. It will depend on what you want to do with it. In fact, you can choose from a long list of meditation types, including loving-kindness, body scan or progressive relaxation, breath awareness, kundalini yoga, zen, transcendental, and more! They’re all so different from one another.
But today, we’re easing anxiety. It turns out mindfulness meditation is one of the most effective ways to reduce feelings of anxiety at a neural level.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a research-backed 8-week program that includes supported teachings, mindfulness practices, and movement practices to help conquer the stressors of everyday life. In fact, in a 1992 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers found that MBSR can effectively reduce symptoms of anxiety and panic in those with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or panic disorder with agoraphobia.
The focus of mindfulness meditation is to train the brain to stay in the moment. To do this, practitioners are taught to let go of the regrets of the past as well as anxieties about the future.
Mindfulness meditation doesn’t have to be done in a specific way – that’s what’s so great about it. You can do it in different places (from loud subway trains to in the comfort of your own home), at different times, and with a partner, group, or alone. You don’t need an app to guide you, nor do you need music or mantras.
Simply remind yourself of these three steps when trying to ease your anxiety:
- Open your attention to the present moment. Do not think about what you had for lunch or what your plans are for the weekend. Be here, now.
- Focus on the breath. If you need to, you could repeat the mantra: Breathe In, Breathe Out. This will keep your mind on the breath rather than the things around you.
- Bring your attention to your body. Remember where you are, the position you’re sitting in. Notice what sounds are around you, but also what your body is feeling at the moment. If you are uncomfortable but know you’re safe, can you sit with that?
Researcher Madhav Goyal and his team found that the effect size of meditation was moderate, and they had the same amount of effect as antidepressants. Now, this does not necessarily mean that if you just meditate you’ll feel fine. It isn’t a magic bullet for depression, just like antidepressants may also not be one-size-fits-all. However, meditation (and medication) can be used as tools to help manage your symptoms. Goyal says, “A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing, but that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.”
When you need a boost
When you need a little extra to get you back to normal, or if you feel like anxiety has been a part of your life for as long as you can remember, you may want to consider supplements on top of a healthy diet and lifestyle. Keep in mind that you can’t simply take supplements alongside the Standard American Diet and expect results. You will want to clean up your food intake and create a lifestyle routine that is conducive to lower levels of stress and anxiety. That’s when you can start to implement herbal supplements and see/feel positive effects.
Some examples of supplements, herbs, or vitamins that may help reduce anxiety are the following:
Dosage, other medication/treatments, and other conditions may affect the benefits you feel from these supplements. Consult a doctor or health professional when starting a new supplement routine.
A great resource I’ve found for meditation is this one by Dr. Ron Siegel. But there are lots like this. You may prefer a different type of meditation.
Lately, I’ve been using the Headspace app at night or as soon as I wake up. Another great option that I like to add in after yoga classes is a simple body scan. A Body Scan is a technique that introduces visualizations to help shift attention away from thoughts that cause anxiety. Here, you’ll lie back on a mat and the instructor will have you check in with each part of your body. It’s a great way to slowly ease tension in each body part and remember that that body part even exists! How often do we think of our right hip or our left shoulder? You’ll have to think about it during a body scan!
When meditation is not working, do not hesitate to reach out to a professional. Not only is a therapist a great option for those who prefer talk therapy, but a doctor can help you find other solutions, as well. You should see a doctor or professional in the following situations:
- You are worrying too much and it interferes with work, relationships, or other parts of your life
- Your fear, worry, or anxiety upsets you and is difficult to control
- You have trouble with alcohol or drugs
- You think your anxiety could be linked to a physical health problem
- Your anxiety has turned into depression, or you have suicidal thoughts or behaviors
Know that none of the symptoms above are too big or too small. You must seek help if you feel this is affecting your life negatively. You will thank yourself and be able to find solutions that ease the anxiety, depression, and any kind of suicidal ideations.
Let us know if you’ve tried any of these methods, whether it be mindfulness meditation, supplementation, lifestyle change, diet change, or therapy. I have personally tried them all and I think when they’re all done in conjunction with one another, it can really work wonders on your nervous system (physical and mental).