Anxiety is a complicated thing. We've all had it at one time or another, but it can spring up either in response to a particular stimulus (like a blind date, performance review, or tight work deadline) or for seemingly no reason at all. As alienating as those thoughts feel, anxiety is common, and, for lack of a better word, completely normal. And, there are healthy tactics to quiet those voices and thus live a more mindful, present life. Just imagine the brain power you have tied up in self-doubt—it's practically endless.
The one habit consistently recommended by doctors and experts is meditation. With that in mind, I reached out to a few to better understand how to get started, what types of meditation practices are especially helpful when battling anxiety, and why it works to begin with. Below, find their thoughts, advice, and helpful studies on the subject. I feel less anxious already.
First, let's break down what meditation really is:
"Meditation is a practice," says Khajak Keledjian, the founder of Inscape. "You use a technique—such as mindfulness, or a mantra—to help train your awareness." He continues, "Meditation gives you the space to slow down, quiet your mind, and observe your thoughts as you focus inward." Essentially, think of meditation as part of your self-care toolkit, it's a way to achieve balance, clarity and calm, and other benefits including better sleep, reduced stress, and sharper focus.
Sure, meditation has roots in spirituality, but the benefits are also backed by science. Jamie Price, a meditation expert and co-founder of wellness app Stop, Breathe & Think, notes, "People think of traditional meditation as silently sitting on a cushion by yourself. But there are all kinds of meditation techniques, each with their own intention." For example, Price says, focusing on your breath to develop concentration, cultivating compassion and kindness, and visualizing a safe, peaceful place to bring about calm feelings all count as a meditation practice. Guided meditation involves following step by step instructions that help you stay on course during a meditation session.
That being said, Price doesn't want you to shy away from meditation just because you've tried it and didn't feel it worked for you. "Everyone is different," she says. "For example, some people connect more with breathing than visualization. I recommend trying out a few different techniques. If you go to a class or use an app, explore different narrators to find one you vibe with."
How can meditation help with anxiety?
Through meditation, you can empower yourself to recognize and release thoughts which are anxiety-provoking, according to Keledjian. "In addition to heightening your awareness and clarity, which helps you to 'respond versus react,' meditation reduces your adrenaline and cortisol—known as your 'fight or flight' response—through regulation of the amygdala. This helps you properly assess the situation and respond accordingly," explains Keledjian. In fact, Studies have shown that the amygdala, where our fearful and anxious emotions live, decreases in brain cell volume after mindfulness practice.
"Meditation involves deep breathing, as well as relaxing different muscles groups," adds Price. This can help you shift your nervous system back to base line. In addition, Price says, your meditations can help strengthen feelings of social connection, which has been shown to increase well-being, immunity, and make you less vulnerable to anxiety and depression. Recently, Stop, Breathe & Think completed a study on the subject and found that consistently meditating over time yields significant mental health results, including decreased anxiety and increased positive emotion. "The results were dramatic, even showing a positive impact after just the first session," shares Price.
Are there different types of meditation that can help?
"Meditation can take an infinite amount of shapes," notes Keledjian, "and there are many techniques, lineages, and practices that create immersive experiences for you to become fully present in the moment." He continues, "Inscape offers series designed for reducing stress, sleeping better and reducing anxiety. We also have curated playlists for those ailments as well."
More specifically, Keledjian suggests breath-work, as it can be especially effective in changing your state quickly. Additionally, mindfulness meditations can guide you through identifying and releasing anxiety-causing thoughts. You can start with sessions as short as three minutes, and choose a time of day to dedicate to your practice. "Consistency is a major component when you're creating a new habit," explains Keledjian. "We recommend the morning as there are likely less interruptions or surprises." That being said, there are no rules for a time or place—that part is totally up to you. Establishing a regular practice is the most important part. "Over time, you'll start to feel more in control during especially anxious times. Meditation helps you gain heightened clarity on the situation that is making you anxious. Plus, shorter meditations and breath-work can help you quickly in real time," says Keledjian. Price recommends four specific types of meditation practice, each one meant specifically for anxiety.
Often, anxiety has to do with concern about the past or future, so it can be helpful to focus on what’s happening right now, in the present. One of the best ways to do that, according to Price, is through mindfulness. "By simply focusing on something like your breath, or your senses, you can bring yourself into the present and take yourself out of the mental loop that perpetuates anxious feelings," Price says.
"To practice mindful breathing, find a comfortable seat, where you can sit up straight. Take a few minutes to focus on your breathing. Notice your breath as it comes in through your nose, fills your lungs, and goes back out through your nose. Become aware of the sensations of your breathing, and notice where you feel your breath most—maybe in the stomach or chest. At some point, as you continue to breathe, you will notice that you have become distracted or lost in thought. When this happens, just acknowledge the thoughts or feelings that arise with open curiosity, and then let them go. It can help to simply note them as 'thought' or 'feeling,' and then bring your attention back to your breath.
2. Controlled Breathing
"When you feel anxious, your body’s stress response is triggered," says Price. "Taking deep, relaxed breaths can help get you back to baseline. Emotions, when left alone, last for about 90 seconds. It’s your thoughts about them and associations with them that keep them going. By switching attention to something physical, like deep relaxing breaths, you can take yourself out of the mental loop that perpetuates anxious feelings," explains Price. She suggests, "For a few minutes focus on taking deep, calming breaths. Intentionally expand your lungs as you breathe in slowly and deeply, and then without any effort exhale naturally. Many people feel relief from anxiety after just a few minutes."
3. Body Scan
"When we’re anxious, we tend to tighten our muscles without realizing it, which leaves us feeling exhausted," Price notes. "Intentionally relaxing your muscles can turn on the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), also known as 'rest and digest,' which helps to calm you down. Try scanning your body starting with your head. Notice your forehead and eyebrows. Are they scrunched? Notice your teeth, lips, and jaw. Are they clenched? Intentionally relax all of the muscles in your face. Scanning down to your neck and shoulders, release any tension you may be holding in this area. To your arms and hands, and your chest and belly. See if you can relax all of the muscles there. Finally scan down to your legs and feet and release any tension you may feel. And for a few minutes, allow your body to be loose and relaxed. She continues, "When you are in the grip of a particular fear, worry or anxiety, remember that your thoughts aren't facts. They are like the weather, passing through, and changing all the time, so you don’t have to attach to them."
4. Positive Visualization
"Bring awareness to the physical experience of anxiety and visualize the release of these feelings as a black cloud floating away in the sky," says Price. She adds: "You can do this by pausing to feel the weight of your body and your feet firmly rooted to the ground. Then see if you can find where the sensation of anxiety is located in your body, such as in your stomach or chest. Slowly and gently allow yourself to feel the sensation there. Then imagine that the uneasy sensation has gathered in the form of a dark cloud." Price continues, "Take a deep breath, and as you exhale, imagine that the dark cloud is expelled from your body with your outgoing breath. See the dark cloud hanging in front of you a couple of feet away, and watch as the cloud floats away slowly like a balloon. Keep watching the dark cloud float away until it completely disappears."