If you live with anxiety, you’ve probably looked for ways to prevent or relieve your symptoms. Perhaps you’ve considered meditation but wonder if it’d be effective for your situation.
For some, the idea of practicing meditation while living with anxiety symptoms is difficult to imagine. You may find it hard to sit quietly or follow instructions, so you’ve been hesitant to try it.
If this describes you, know that meditation has helped many people manage their anxiety symptoms. Now may be the time to see whether it could work for you, too.
There isn’t one unique definition of meditation. Diverse cultures and traditions may refer to different activities as meditation.
In general, meditation refers to techniques and practices that involve focusing your mind on a particular thought, object, or activity. For example, focusing on the rhythm of your breathing may be considered a form of meditation.
Meditation also usually involves goals, such as calming down, increasing self-awareness, and managing your emotions and thoughts.
Buddhists have said for millennia that meditation can significantly benefit mental health. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that scientists in the West started taking a keen interest in it.
Since then, numerous studies have revealed the unique benefits of meditation techniques, including their ability to reduce signs of stress and anxiety.
Even though there is limited evidence-based support for meditation as a first-line treatment for anxiety disorders, research does suggest that this practice may be effective as a supplemental therapy.
A 2020 review showed that people who practice meditation for a long time start showing changes in the areas of their brain that modulate the stress and anxiety response.
Specifically, the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus show increased activity. Also, the amygdala, which is involved in the fight, flight, or freeze response, shows decreased activity. All of this indicates improved emotional regulation, according to the review.
But research also shows that long-term practice is not needed to experience these brain changes. For example, a
Other systematic reviews of meditation-based techniques, such as focused attention and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, have also shown these practices lead to a reduction in symptoms of anxiety.
A 2018 pilot study found that among college students ages 19 to 22, the longer they practiced guided meditation the less stress and anxiety they experienced. However, 5 to 12 minutes of daily practice was enough to see results.
A meta-analysis of 209 studies also found that mindfulness-based therapy has been shown to be effective in the reduction of anxiety, depression, and stress.
There are various types of meditation with quite a bit of overlap in their benefits. Selecting the right one for you is a matter of personal preference and needs.
Below are some easy-to-do types of meditation you can perform on your own without any formal training.
Mindfulness meditation, which is rooted in Buddhist teachings, is one of the most well-known and most researched types of meditation.
Mindfulness meditation aims to help you:
- go with the flow, instead of resisting what’s happening within yourself and outside yourself
- let go of the need to evaluate your thoughts and surroundings
- calm down your mind and body
This practice involves different techniques, which may include:
- breathing exercises
- guided imagery
- focusing attention
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to be effective at reducing both physical and mental symptoms of anxiety. It may help you feel calmer in general, and it could also help you prevent and navigate anxiety episodes.
In fact, some research has found that standalone mindfulness exercises may have a positive effect on anxiety and depression symptoms.
To feel its benefits, you can practice this type of meditation for 1 minute or for 1 hour. You can also search for therapists who incorporate it into their practice, or you could practice it on your own.
If you want to try it out, these are some simple steps for mindfulness meditation:
- Find a quiet and comfortable place to sit.
- If you’d like, set a timer on your phone. If you’re just starting out, it can be for just 5 to 10 minutes.
- Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and relax your body.
- Breathe naturally and direct your attention to your breath: This can include the feeling of air going in and out of your nostrils or the movement of your belly.
- If it’s easier for you, start by mentally counting each time you inhale and exhale. You can count to 4 while you breathe in, and then count to 4 again when breathing out. As you get familiar with this rhythm, stop counting and try focusing on the air itself going in and out of you.
- Thoughts will naturally come into your mind. Notice them without judgment and then turn your focus back to your breathing.
- When you’re ready, open your mind and focus on how your body feels now.
Body scan meditation
Have you ever noticed you can feel anxiety in your body? Indeed, our bodies can manifest anxiety as a tight or upset stomach, clenched fists, or shoulder tension.
Body scan meditation, also called progressive relaxation, helps you mentally scan for these uncomfortable or tense feelings in your body so you can release them.
To do this, you would start at one end of your body and slowly work to the opposite end.
For example, if you start with your feet, you would next move to your legs and then stomach, back, arms, and so on.
Try to pause on each body part and notice if you feel any tension, pain, or discomfort.
If you do, focus on those sensations for about 30 seconds. Then, notice how they make you feel. Instead of reacting to your feelings about how your body feels, let go of judgment and accept it. If your body is tired, try to accept it. If you experience pain, accept it. Acceptance is important for letting go.
As you do this, you can start making a conscious effort to relax and relieve any discomfort. You may, for example, focus on your breathing and feel how every breath provides a degree of relief.
Then, you can move your attention to other parts of your body and repeat the exercise.
When you’re done, you can sit for a few minutes focusing on your whole body and its new sensations. Open your eyes when you feel ready.
One 2019 study found that participants who did a body scan meditation for 20 minutes a day over 8 weeks showed lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol are linked to many conditions, including anxiety and depression.
Loving-kindness meditation, or metta, is a type of Buddhist meditation that aims to help you cultivate unconditional kindness to yourself and others. In addition, it can help you manage anxiety symptoms associated with interpersonal conflict and feelings of guilt or shame.
This practice involves mindfully repeating phrases that aim to express positive emotions.
For example, “May you be happy. May you be fortunate. May you be loved.”
To practice metta meditation, you can follow these steps:
- Find a quiet and comfortable place to sit with your eyes closed.
- Focus on your breathing for a few minutes.
- Think of one to three kind phrases you’d like to repeat.
- Decide to direct these phrases to yourself or someone else.
- Focus on yourself or the other person while you repeat your phrases.
- Acknowledge how this phrase and intention make you feel.
- Repeat until you experience a sense of compassion and peace.
This meditation can be done with visualization. When reciting your phrases, you can visualize the other person (or yourself) experiencing these phrases. For example, visualize yourself being happy, fortunate, and at peace.
You may be wondering how you’re supposed to sit quietly and calmly to meditate when you’re feeling anxious.
Indeed, you may find meditation challenging at first. But it gets better with time and practice, and the benefits may be worth it for you.
Here are some tips for meditating when you’re in an anxious state of mind:
- Let go of expectations. You will probably not sit quietly for an hour on your first try, and that’s okay.
- Once you’ve saved some time for your practice, program yourself ahead of time. This might mean starting to slow down your breathing a few minutes before you sit down, or writing down your phrases if you’re doing metta meditation.
- You might want to start with 3 minutes of body scan meditation to release any physical tension.
- You may experience intrusive or persistent thoughts at first. Let them go without judgment or frustration, and try focusing back on your practice.
- If you’re having a difficult time releasing your thoughts without judgment, try “attaching” them to an imaginary balloon. Let go of it and watch as it slowly disappears into the sky.
- Start small. It’s fine to start with 1 minute of meditation and work your way up.
If you have a busy schedule or feel the need to do something quick to prevent an anxiety or panic attack, you can practice meditation on the spot, wherever you are.
Here are a few ways you can meditate quickly:
- While counting to 4, inhale deeply and slowly through your nose, and then exhale deeply and slowly through your mouth on another count of 4. Focus on counting and breathing at the same time for as long as you need to.
- Keep a calming photo (such as a waterfall or forest) in your phone or pocket and look at it when you feel anxiety coming on. Focus on it and try to dissect every detail of it as if you were trying to uncover hidden images within the picture.
- Do a quick body scan meditation. Focus on areas of your body that frequently tighten up when you’re stressed, like your neck or shoulders, for example.
- As you breathe slowly, visualize your stress leaving your body. Imagine it moving out through your feet and into the earth.
- Talk to yourself with loving-kindness. Talk as you would to your own child or another person you care deeply about. “It’s OK. You got this. You’re doing great.”
One of the best ways to start a meditation practice is to use a meditation app. These apps guide you step by step and help you increase your meditation skills over time.
- UCLA Mindful
- Smiling Mind
- Simply Being
- The Mindfulness App
Whether you have occasional anxiety episodes or live with an anxiety disorder, meditation can be an effective, all-natural way to find some relief.
Meditation can take practice — like any new activity or habit — but it might be worth the effort.
If you’re unsure about getting started, or find it difficult at first, try doing it for only 5 minutes a day. You can eventually work your way up and find that the longer you do it, the better you feel.