Cultivating a mindfulness meditation practice is a very powerful antidote to anxiety symptoms.
Mindfulness has become a catchphrase in today’s wellness culture. It used all across the board for increasing productivity at work all the way to coping with trauma, mental illness, and physical illness.
However, mindfulness meditation has a rich lineage and history attached to it. There are millennia of accumulated wisdom in the Vipassana tradition of the East, which has over the decades spread to the West and all across the world.
Why Mindfulness Meditation for Anxiety?
The insights and practices from these traditions are very potent antidotes to the suffering posed by anxiety and panic disorders. Sufferers of anxiety disorders are very prone to overthinking. While advantageous in some situations, this can be usually at the expense of their social and emotional wellbeing. They often deal with distracting, emotionally-charged thoughts that have too much power.
Mindfulness reduces this because it gradually reveals that we are not our thoughts, our thinking mind is not our core self. The problem lies not in thoughts themselves, but in identification with thoughts. When someone is in the midst of a panic attack, the thoughts of a heart attack or severe life-threatening emergency really feel like they are them in the most real sense, and all of the accompanying emotions and physiological responses reinforce this.
In Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), anxiety is not a direct product of any particular object, activity, or situation, but rather generalised in a far-reaching way to all experience. There is apprehension about a number of hypothetical events (catastrophising) that is out of proportion to the actual likelihood or potential impact of those events. GAD sufferers fear the future such that they behave in a way that is risk-averse and overly cautious, impacting the quality of life on all dimensions.
The Logic of Practice
Mindfulness meditation grounds us in the present moment experience of the sensations of the breath. The meditator begins to recognise that the future and the past are both abstractions, thoughts, occurring now. The essence of the practice is the skill of present moment awareness on the breath, and when the mind (inevitably) wonders towards thinking, one simply acknowledges gently those thoughts and returns to the present moment awareness of breathing. Rinse and repeat.
The counter-intuitive element of the practice is that mindfulness trains us to accept and fully allow disturbing thoughts and emotions. It is in letting them come and go with compassion while being anchored to the breath that transformation starts to take place, rather than repressing these thoughts or running away from them with other tasks.
The Science Backing Mindfulness Meditation
In one study from 2014, a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) helped reduce anxiety symptoms in people with a generalised anxiety disorder. In similar studies, an 8-week mindfulness program reduced emotional reactivity and stress coping, suggesting mindfulness is an important practice for building resilience.
If you’re living with an anxiety disorder or know somebody who does, practising daily meditation may help quell the anxiety symptoms and reduce overall tension in the body. Simply 10 to 20 minutes a day of practice is all that is required to start a practice, and you may well find it will change your entire life over time.
Basic Instructions to Get Started:
- Find a comfortable, relaxed position. You can be seated upright on a chair or on the floor with a cushion. Keep your back straight, but not too tight. Let the hands rest wherever they are comfortable.
- Bring your awareness to your body and let gravity settle you in the seat. Try to notice the shape of your body, its weight, and the pressure of the body on the cushion or chair. Let yourself relax and become curious about your body seated — the sensations it experiences, the touch, the connection with the floor. Relax any areas of tension and tightness. Just breathe.
- Bring awareness to your breathing. Feel the natural flow of breath, in and out. You don’t have to do anything to it or control it, just receive it. Notice where you feel your breath in your body, below the nostrils or maybe in the rising and falling of the abdomen. See if you can cover the breath with your awareness, one breath at a time. Notice the pauses between each breath, and if it helps, label each breath at the end of it with a number, counting to ten and back to one again.
- As you do this, the mind will inevitably wander. This is totally normal. You may start thinking about other things, like your responsibilities or if you are doing it correctly. Just notice that the mind has wandered, and gently return attention to your breathing.