We’ve all experienced it at some point in our lives: A sudden increase in heart rate, the pit of our stomach dropping, the tightness in our chest, a flurry of fearful thoughts.
Whether the feeling arises after a challenging situation or catches you entirely off guard, anxiety is far from uncommon. And actually, it can be a good thing.
Anxiety is a healthy emotion that poses an evolutionary advantage for human survival—it’s our brain’s alarm system. It reacts to danger, triggering an automatic fight-or-flight response whenever we feel threatened or anticipate pain. When our brain expects a threat, those unsettling feelings kick in to prepare our body to act fast to prevent further setbacks and danger. The physiological responses of a racing heart and tense muscles are our body preparing for immediate action. Thousands of years ago, instincts like fleeing from large animals or avoiding conflicts with neighboring tribes were essential for survival. We don’t need to worry about these survival challenges today, but our neurochemicals have evolved to give us a sense of “life-threatening” urgency even to the smallest of challenges.
Although a healthy emotion in moderation, sometimes our anxiety can interfere with our daily life and become overwhelming, all-consuming, and debilitating.
Here are four ways meditation helps reduce anxiety and improves your overall well-being:
So what do we do when anxiety persists and constantly ruminates? In recent years, there has been increasing research highlighting the powerful effects of mindfulness meditation on anxiety reduction. For instance, research published in JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that mindful meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain. Another study found that only eight weeks of meditation helped reduce anxiety symptoms in individuals with generalized anxiety disorder, in addition to improving stress reactivity and increasing positive self-statements.
1. Meditation can change the brain.
A study conducted at Harvard in 2011 revealed that mindfulness meditation can change the structure of your brain. Eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training resulted in an increase of cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which controls learning, memory, and emotion regulation. The training also sparked a decrease in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for stress, anxiety, and fear. Another study carried out at Yale University discovered that meditation decreases brain activity in the “default mode network” (DMN), the network responsible for mind-wandering thoughts. Typically, mind-wandering is associated with over-thinking and anxious thoughts, so cooling down and quieting the DMN is an excellent start for calming anxiety.
“People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power,” explains Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Centre for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital. We often experience anxiety because our mind drifts to the past or the future. However, meditation allows us to intentionally focus on the here and the now, bringing our awareness and attention to the present. “If you have unproductive worries, you can train yourself to experience those thoughts in a different way,” she claims.
3. Meditation helps us regulate breathing.
One of the easiest ways to feel less anxious is simply focusing your attention on your breath and noticing if it’s short and shallow or long and deep. Deep breathing exercises have a powerful effect on your mind, and help us slow down and feel more at ease. With meditation, we focus on breathing, which is directly connected to our nervous system. We are encouraged to take slow and deep breaths, bringing awareness to our abdomen’s rise and fall. Studies reveal that deep breathing can improve cognitive function, reduce anxiety symptoms, and promote positive thought processes.
4. Meditation helps promote self-acceptance.
Mindfulness meditation teaches us to observe and accept difficult feelings without suppressing, judging or overanalyzing them. When you make time and space for yourself to experience and acknowledge your feelings and fears, you create the opportunity to safely explore and gain insight into what’s causing your stress and worries. By setting some time aside each day to create space for your thoughts and worries, you don’t let them consume and overwhelm you. Instead, you can let them pass judgment-free.
So, where do I start?
If you’re new to meditation, it might seem foreign to sit still in silence for an extended period and do nothing. You’ll notice that your mind will be busy with thoughts and easily distracted, so it may be challenging at first to stay present and in the moment. The best place to start is simply finding a quiet space, getting comfortable, sitting still, and closing your eyes. Guided meditation tools that help you stay motivated, provide guidance, and keep you accountable can make a huge difference in your practice. For instance, the Atria 2.0 Stress Management program provides seamless guided breathing exercises, along with a selection of meditation tracks designed to reduce stress and improve mental health. Their smartwatch technology and advanced sensors collect physiological data 24/7, so you can see how your practice affects your heart health and blood pressure in real-time.
A couple of tips and tricks:
You can feel the benefits of meditation almost immediately after one single session. Research shows that you don’t need to meditate every day, but the key is consistency - even just a few minutes a day can make a big difference. Here’s how to start practicing:
Before you begin, it’s helpful to start with a clear motivation and intention for why you want to meditate. Whether it’s to reduce stress, feel happier, feel calmer, or improve focus—be clear with what you want to get out of your practice so that you can set yourself up with the right mindset.
Training the mind in awareness is a long journey and isn’t easily achieved overnight. It’s important to be patient with yourself and remind yourself to take it day by day. Inevitably, you’ll have days where your mind will wander and get lost in thought and daydreams—which is entirely natural. When you catch yourself distracted, gently let go of the thought and return your awareness back to the breath. Try not to label and judge your thoughts and feelings. Simply acknowledge them and then return to the present moment.
Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as “belly breathing,” is the core of your meditation practice. This breathing exercise helps you strengthen your diaphragm, which is the body’s major respiration muscle. The basic procedure involves lying down on a flat surface, and placing one hand on the stomach and the other on your upper chest. To inhale, breathe deeply through the nose and draw your breath down to your stomach, letting it expand and rise. To exhale, release your breath through your mouth and let the stomach slowly sink.
The body scan is one of the most effective ways to ground yourself in your meditation practice. The purpose is to check in with your body and notice any sensations you’re feeling from your head down to your toes. It involves systematically focusing attention on different areas of your body, so the mind is more aware of sensory experiences. Start by bringing attention to your head and seeing if you can feel your ears, eyes, and nose. Slowly move your attention down to your neck and shoulders, scanning and sensing all the way down until you reach your feet. Some feelings may be pleasant, while others may be uncomfortable - but try not to label the sensations, just note them and continue your scan.
Now that you have the right tools and techniques, what are you waiting for? Carve some time out of your day, and start your meditation practice!