Explore how mindfulness and meditation can help soften feelings of anxiousness, reduce stress, and calm a panic attack in our new mindful guide to meditation for anxiety.
Anxiety is our body’s way of saying, “Hey, I’m experiencing too much stress all at once.” This happens to the best of us. But when that feeling of being “always on alert” becomes background noise that doesn’t go away, that’s when it’s time to seek help. Mindfulness and meditation for anxiety is a growing field that can help you navigate the many ways that anxiety can affect your life. This guide is not meant to serve as a diagnosing tool or a treatment path—it’s simply a collection of research and practices you can turn to as you begin to help right your ship.
How Mindfulness Helps Anxiety
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
Leading expert Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” adding: “in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”
When you become aware of the present moment, you gain access to resources you may not have realized were with you all along—a stillness at your core. An awareness of what you need and don’t need in your life that’s with you all the time. You may not be able to change your situation, but mindfulness practice offers the space to change your response to your situation.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), founded by Kabat-Zinn, the gold-standard for research-backed mindfulness. Developed over 40 years ago, MBSR is an 8-week program, including supported teachings, mindfulness practices, and movement practices that help people work with the stresses of everyday life. MBSR practices allow you to bring kind awareness and acknowledgment to any stressed or anxious feelings in your body and mind and simply allow them to be. A 1992 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that MBSR can effectively reduce symptoms of anxiety and panic even in those with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or panic disorder with agoraphobia.
According to other research, when you can create space between yourself and what you’re experiencing, your anxiety can soften. But if you get too used to that low rumble of stress always being there, it can gradually grow, creating a stress “habit” that is detrimental to your health and well-being. Consequently, when we get caught up in patterns of reactivity, we create more distress in our lives. This is why it’s so important to discern clearly the difference between reacting with unawareness and responding with mindfulness.
Mindfulness Works, But Not for Everyone
Mindfulness is an adjunct to, not a replacement for, treatment. Sometimes, when people have difficult or extensive histories of trauma or abuse, meditation practice may put them in touch with those memories and emotions, which can sometimes feel overwhelming, particularly at first. For this reason, if you have a history like this it’s wise to be working with a therapist while exploring the practice of mindfulness.
Meditation does seem to improve mental health—but it’s not necessarily more effective than other steps you can take. Early research suggested that mindfulness meditation had a dramatic impact on our mental health. But as the number of studies has grown, so has scientific skepticism about these initial claims.
For example, a 2014 meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine examined 47 randomized controlled trials of mindfulness meditation programs, which included a total of 3,515 participants. They found that meditation programs resulted only in small to moderate reductions in anxiety and depression.
“In essence, practicing mindfulness is a process of learning to trust and stay with feelings of discomfort rather than trying to escape from or analyze them,” says Bob Stahl, Ph.D., Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher, founder of multiple MBSR programs, and co-author of multiple books on MBSR. “This often leads to a remarkable shift; time and again your feelings will show you everything you need to know about them—and something you need to know for your own well-being.”
Pause: Connect with your breath
How Mindfulness Calms Anxious Feelings
- Mindfulness helps you learn to stay with difficult feelings without analyzing, suppressing, or encouraging them. When you allow yourself to feel and acknowledge your worries, irritations, painful memories, and other difficult thoughts and emotions, this often helps them dissipate.
- Mindfulness allows you to safely explore the underlying causes of your stress and worry. By going with what’s happening rather than expending energy fighting or turning away from it, you create the opportunity to gain insight into what’s driving your concerns.
- Mindfulness helps you create space around your worries so they don’t consume you. When you begin to understand the underlying causes of your apprehension, freedom and a sense of spaciousness naturally emerge.
Calm Anxiety in Three Steps:
- Open your attention to the present moment. The invitation is to bring attention to our experience in a wider and more open manner that isn’t really involved with selecting or choosing or evaluating, but simply holding—becoming a container for thoughts, feelings or sensations in the body that are present and seeing if we can watch them from one moment to the next.
- Focus on the breath. Let go of that widescreen and bring a focus that’s much more concentrated and centered on breathing in one region of your body—the breath of the belly, or the chest, or the nostrils, or anywhere that the breath makes itself known, and keep that more concentrated focus.
- Bring your attention to your body. Become aware of sensations in the body as a whole, sitting with the whole body, the whole breath, once again we move back to a wider and spacious container of attention for our experience.
Keywords; Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, anxiety, stress