A regular meditation practice can help ease the symptoms of anxiety, a condition that, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, affects an estimated 40 million adults in the U.S.
Anxiety is a part of our body’s natural response to stress—a cognitive state connected to an inability to regulate emotions. When we meditate, we counter the stress response, leading to a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen consumption. Research has shown that a consistent meditation practice not only calms us down but reprograms neural pathways in the brain, improving our overall ability to regulate our emotions.
There are many meditation techniques that can help ease the symptoms of anxiety, but these are three of my tried-and-tested favorites.
Anxiety feels different for everyone, but common symptoms include feeling unable to relax, having a sense of dread, or always fearing the worst. When we practice mindfulness meditation, we become aware of the anxiety-inducing thoughts or feelings in the body and mind, which is the first step in approaching them with compassion and understanding. Meditation trains us to not get attached to these thoughts but rather to allow them to be. It can be scary to stay with thoughts, worries, and painful memories or emotions you instinctively wish to shy away from, but the very act of being with them has been shown to help them dissipate.
How to do it: Begin by sitting in a comfortable position. Bring your awareness to the physical sensation of the breath: the rising and falling of the abdomen and chest or the feeling of the breath as it travels in and out the nostrils or mouth. Once you feel settled, bring your awareness to the thoughts and emotions, letting them come and then letting them go. Imagine each thought is like a cloud moving across a clear blue sky, always changing.
This exercise is a form of breathwork and is one of the fastest ways to reduce stress and anxiety. I often practice it to help myself fall asleep at night or before a big talking engagement or workshop and find that it helps me calm and reset the nervous system, helping my body and brain to relax.
With the hands resting on the belly, breathe in deeply, sending the breath away from the chest and down toward the abdomen. Imagine there is a balloon in your belly and on the inhale that balloon expands into your hands, and on the exhale it deflates. You could try extending the exhale slightly to further encourage the body back to its natural resting state.
This is a good approach for those days when the thoughts and feelings seem completely overwhelming, as it gives your brain something else to focus on.
Choose a mantra that resonates with you. It may be a self-affirmation (such as “I am worthy”), or it may be a simple chant (such as “om”). Repeat that mantra over and over again for a few minutes. Each time you get distracted, don’t worry about it. Draw your focus back once more to the mantra.
All these techniques can be practiced whenever you begin to feel anxiety rising, but while in-the-moment relief is wonderful, it’s the cumulative effects of a regular meditation practice that have truly transformative results. Think of meditating like building up any other muscle in the body: While you may feel fantastic after one exercise session, you may also feel terrible. Regardless, after weeks or years of regular workouts, you will definitely feel (and be) physically stronger. It’s the same with meditation and the brain. I recommend starting with a daily practice of 5 to 10 minutes. However, if that feels like too much, then aim to meditate five times a week to start.
For anxiety, it can be helpful to establish a routine and practice at roughly the same time every day. It doesn’t matter where or when you do it: If sitting cross-legged every morning feels uncomfortable, then try it on your commute to work (not while driving, though!) or at night right before bed.
The short answer is that meditation isn’t always a straight path. So yes, some sessions will make you feel incredible, yet others may bring up emotions and frustrations that challenge you. The important thing is to be kind and compassionate to yourself through it all and try your best not to bring any judgment to your meditation experience. It’s the act of making space and time for yourself that makes the difference.
If your mind is very busy, then it’s busy. That’s not a reflection of your ability to meditate or gain the benefits from the practice. And if you find yourself swept up in life and miss a few days (or weeks/months/years) of practice, then know that you can always start up again.
Meditation is an excellent tool for helping alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and over time can provide substantial relief to an uneasy mind. However, it’s not the only way to cope with anxiety. Getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, eating balanced meals, maintaining a breathwork practice, and staying connected to people who care about you are great ways to keep it at bay.