Sometimes the simplest strategies are among the most effective, and using meditation for anxiety relief is no exception. It may seem contradictory that the act of sitting quietly and focusing solely on your breath could have such a profound anxiety-relieving impact, because when we’re anxious, usually the last thing we want is to be alone with our thoughts. When we want to ease discomfort or unpleasant emotions, our first instinct is often to do something active – to seek a distraction to take our mind off what’s ailing us.
This is especially true in the today’s era of multitasking, when most of us have a hard enough time focusing even on things we enjoy without allowing distractions to creep in. But for thousands of years, across many different cultures, learning to sit quietly with one’s self has been the key to achieving inner peace and vitality.
The Science of Meditation
In recent years, the medical community has begun to place an increasing focus on the stress- and anxiety-relieving benefits of mindfulness practices, including meditation and yoga. As the demand for alternative therapies has grown, researchers have worked to unlock the scientific explanations behind the effectiveness of these practices.
In one study published earlier this year in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center identified the regions of the brain activated by meditation: the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which controls worry, was highly active during meditation, but once activity picked up in the anterior cingulate cortex, which controls thinking and emotion, study participants saw their anxiety decrease. Study results showed that meditation reduced levels of everyday anxiety among study participants by nearly 40%.
Currently, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Denninger is working on a five-year-long, government-funded study that examines how mindfulness practices such as meditation can impact activity in the brains and genes of chronically stressed patients. The study takes advantage of the latest neuro-imaging and genomics technology, which allows researchers to gather detailed measurements of the physiological changes brought about by meditation.
“There is a true biological effect. The kinds of things that happen when you meditate do have effects throughout the body, not just in the brain,” Denninger said in an article for Bloomberg.com.
The results of this study could have a game-changing effect on how alternative therapies are regarded within the medical community.
These new findings are confirming results of other earlier studies, like one conducted in 2006 that showed that meditation and other mindfulness techniques helped relieve symptoms of anxiety disorders. Participants reported improved functioning at work and in social and familial relationships, as well as improved mood and less overall distress.
One of the unfortunate findings of that same 2006 study, however, is that 33 to 44% of participants dropped out, suggesting that anxiety sufferers may have difficulty sticking with meditation. This is not exactly surprising; as many people with anxiety can attest, it’s a challenge to fulfill even ordinary daily obligations when you’re really struggling. Making big changes, like adding a new mindfulness routine, can feel overwhelming.
What’s more is that while meditation yields some pretty amazing results in the long run, it can be uncomfortable when you first begin. You’ll likely have a million thoughts running through your mind that seem impossible to dismiss. Unpleasant emotions are likely to arise, and it can be challenging to simply sit with these thoughts and feelings. But that’s the key to meditation – allowing yourself to simply be in the moment.
It’s important to keep in mind that even if you find difficult emotions coming up in the first five minutes of sitting for meditation, you will likely feel a deeper sense of calm by the end. These benefits only compound the more often you do it, as slipping into a tranquil state of mind becomes easier with time and practice. On the days when your anxious mind fears the initial moments of discomfort, remind yourself of the worthwhile outcome of continuing your meditation practice.
Getting Started With a Meditation Practice
If you’re just establishing a meditation routine, carve out blocks of at least 10 minutes a couple times a week to dedicate to it. Try not to practice within two hours after eating a large meal, as the digestion process may disrupt your meditative state. Choose a comfortable place, whether it’s inside your home or outdoors, that’s free of distractions. Keep your phone and other electronics out of range. You may put on relaxing instrumental music if you’d like, but keep in mind that music can evoke emotion, which may be counterproductive when you’re trying to clear your mind.
Get seated in a comfortable position and take a long, deep breath in. Hold it for a moment and then exhale slowly and completely. Try to focus only on your breath, and imagine any thoughts that creep into your mind being carried away by your exhalation. Sit as still as possible, with your attention on your breath, for at least 10 minutes.
Over time, try gradually adding minutes to your practice. Once you’ve mastered sitting quietly with your breath, you may also want to vary your technique eventually and try out many different kinds of meditations.
Ultimately, if you stick with meditation, the mindfulness and sense of ease that you attain with your practice will spill over into other areas of your life. This can lead to greater focus, increased energy and productivity, better sleep, and, in general, a better quality of life. And remember: Those moments when your anxious mind most strongly resists meditation are actually when you need it most.