Everyone has experienced anxiety at some point in his or her life. Any situation that is difficult or complicated will cause anxiety, which makes anxiety a normal part of life. While some suffer more than others, each person has experienced anxiety at some point, so everyone knows how difficult it can be to have healthy, productive ways to manage the feelings of dread, nervousness, anticipation, and fear that anxiety can cause.
Each person handles anxiety differently, depending on his or her individual, unique situation. There are different coping strategies that can be learned to cope with anxiety. One universally effective way to cope is through the practice of meditation. Research has found that meditative practices reduce anxiety, increase focus and concentration, decrease prevalence of racing thoughts and sleep issues, and help an anxious person learn how to be confident and accept the things that cause anxiety and discomfort.
What Is Meditation And How Can It Help?
Meditation is a practice that derives from ancient Eastern cultures like China, India, and Middle Eastern countries. Meditation has been found to improve not only mental health issues like anxiety, anger management, depression, and mood swings, but has also been found instrumental in the medical field, as doctors believe meditation to be helpful in reducing chronic pain caused by illnesses such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and auto-immune disease.
Extensive research has found that meditation has a positive effect on reducing symptoms of anxiety and improving the overall quality of life of patients. Meditation not only helps decrease in-the-moment anxiety symptoms, but also helps patients feel less anxious overall, by increasing confidence, security, and a sense of calm that was previously absent. Meditation helps prevent symptoms that worsen anxiety, like:
- Shallow or labored breathing
- Fear for the future
- Racing thoughts
- Lack of confidence
- Poor self image
- Poor self-awareness
- Poor stress management skills
- Panic attacks
Meditation has many positive effects on a person, like teaching patience, acceptance, and letting go of the need to be in control. All of these effects help reduce symptoms of anxiety. The central goals of meditative practices are to reduce anxiety, increase focus and awareness of a person’s presence in the world, and reaching a sense of calm and peace in the present moment. Meditation incorporates exercises that connect the body and mind to reach a deep state of awareness and slow down racing and negative thoughts.
Most forms of meditation incorporate breath work into their practice. Breath work is vital for success when learning how to use meditation to reduce symptoms of anxiety. Breath work is important for reducing anxiety because it provides a calming rise-and-fall pattern, which the mind can focus on to slow down thoughts, reduce distractibility and increase focus on the self. The breath provides a connection with the life of the body and mind, and a rhythm to help fall into a state of calm and concentration.
Breath work also helps with reducing racing thoughts and physical symptoms by ensuring that the body receives sufficient oxygen to perform its functions. When people get anxious, they tend to begin breathing shallower than when they are in a peaceful state. This is due to a number of reasons, including having racing thoughts that cause a distraction and disconnect from the present moment, which causes the body to go into a state of alertness that shallows the breath. When a person performs breath work exercises like focusing on the breath, manipulating the breath, and practicing deep breathing exercises to fill and empty the lungs, the body is provided with sufficient oxygen to prevent the muscles from tensing and cause the brain to feel a euphoric calm, sensation.
Types of Meditative Practices
Yoga, arguably the most popular form of meditation in today’s society, is a 5,000 year old meditative practice developed in ancient India. Yoga is the practice of incorporating the body, mind, and breathing to help develop a sense of oneness within one’s own physical state. Yoga utilizes meditative body poses that help improve:
Those who practice yoga tend to be more at peace with themselves and with the world. Yoga teaches people how to feel connected to themselves and the world around them while building confidence and trust in oneself. This confidence and trust helps reduce the need to be in control by teaching the student how to accept things that they cannot control and feel empowered by what they can control. Yoga helps people who suffer by anxiety by not only building confidence and teaching them how to let go of the need to be in control, but also helping them learn how to remain present, challenge racing thoughts, and calm the mind.
Tai Chi is an ancient meditative practice that is similar to yoga. Tai Chi derives from ancient China and incorporates fluid motions of the body to build balance and self-awareness. While Tai Chi is considered a martial art, it does not involve physical combat or defense exercise; just the fluid motions that help improve focus and attention on the present moment, which reduces anticipatory stress and anxiety and racing thoughts.
Tai Chi helps ease physical symptoms of anxiety as the fluid motions strengthen and stretch the muscles and helps them release stress that causes muscle tension and pain. Tai Chi is a positive alternative to the more stoic meditative exercises. Many who struggle to hold poses for long periods of time or to sit still for long enough to find a deep meditative state tend to find Tai Chi as a useful way to relieve anxiety, build a sense of self-awareness, and learn how to use breath work to relieve anxiety.
Transcendental meditation was developed in the late 1970’s as an easier alternative to traditional meditative practices. Transcendental meditation utilizes the mantra (a phrase or sentence to repeat and focus on in times of stress or when trying to reach a meditative state) to quiet thoughts to reach a state of inner peace. The goal of transcendental meditation is to repeat the mantra enough times for the mantra to be the only present thought in your mind. This practice is useful for those who struggle with meditating because it gives students a focal point to begin their practice. This helps the student silence all thoughts to meet a fully meditative state, absent of conscious and subconscious thoughts.
Transcendental meditation has been found to be useful in reducing anxiety, fatigue, muscle tension, and even depression as it brings concentration and relaxation to the mind and body through intense focus. The effectiveness in reducing overall anxiety combined with its relatively easy process to reach a meditative state makes transcendental meditation a viable option for those who either are new to meditative practices or are using meditation specifically to calm the mind and manage day-to-day stress and anxiety.
Guided imagery is a relatively new form of meditation that has been developed by mental health professionals to help relieve stress, anxiety and depression. Guided imagery has been found to be particularly useful in reducing episodic symptoms of panic disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder, like panic attacks, flashbacks and night terrors. The goal of guided imagery is to help a person relax and reduce stress by using the imagination to bring the mind back to a calm state.
Guided imagery is performed by imagining a peaceful and secure space in the mind. A patient is asked to imagine not only the visual scene of the peaceful place, but also the sounds, smells, tastes and feelings associated with the peaceful place. For example, a person may choose to use guided imagery to picture himself or herself sitting on the beach. He or she may imagine the vision of sitting on the shoreline looking out into the distance, hearing seagulls and the crashing of the waves, feeling the sand on their feet and tasting the salty air. While creating this peaceful place in his or her mind, the patient will also be asked to remain conscious of the breaths taken, having the patient use the breath to fall deeper into the meditative state.
A person learning how to use guided imagery to reduce anxiety will need to be coached by a professional before being able to perform the exercise on his or her own. With proper guidance he or she will learn how to utilize the meditation tool in times of need to reduce stress and anxiety. Like each of the previous forms of meditation summarized, guided imagery can be useful in reducing anxiety and preventing symptoms of anxiety, like panic attacks, insomnia, fatigue and mood swings.