In This Article
Anxiety is a complicated thing. We've all had it at one time or another, and 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. Thankfully, there are healthy tactics to quiet those voices and thus live a more mindful, present life. Just imagine the brain power you’ll free up when you find a way to quiet your self-doubt and worry.
The one habit consistently recommended by doctors and experts is meditation. With that in mind, we reached out to a few mediation experts to better understand how to get started, what types of meditation practices are especially helpful when battling anxiety, and why it even works.
Read on for their thoughts, advice, and guidance regarding how to start meditating your way to a calmer day.
Meet the Expert
What Is Meditation, Really?
"Meditation is a practice [where] you use a technique—such as mindfulness, or a mantra—to help train your awareness,” says Keledjian. “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, it may help you reduce stress, improve your focus, and sleep better, too.
“Meditation can be misunderstood as something in which the goal is to get calm,” notes Eisner, who says we are actually just trying to meet ourselves where we are. “If we’re anxious, we attend to the anxiety, and get present with it, and if we’re feeling sad, we meet ourselves there, and so on,” she explains. “And the magic comes from that: being with what is present.”
How Can Meditation Help With Anxiety?
Sure, meditation has roots in spirituality, but the benefits are also backed by science. "Meditation involves deep breathing, as well as relaxing different muscles groups," explains Price. This can help you shift your nervous system back to baseline, which reduces anxiety. Our experts filled us in on the following additional ways in which meditation can reduce anxiety and enhance your life.
It improves your mental health.
Price says meditation can help strengthen feelings of social connection, which has been shown to increase wellbeing and immunity, and alleviate depression. Research has found that consistently meditating over time yields significant mental health results, including decreased anxiety and increased positive emotions.
It increases awareness of your thoughts and feelings.
Through meditation, you can empower yourself to recognize and release thoughts that 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.
It can help you fall asleep faster.
Whether you’re up counting sheep because you can’t quiet your mind or because your body feels physically restless, we’ve all had nights where sleep is elusive. Meditation may help. “When we meditate, physical and mental agitation decreases, and we start to notice what we feel and what our bodies need,” shares Eisner. “Often, we get in touch with our own sense of exhaustion, fatigue, tiredness, and just get sleepy.”
It relaxes the mind.
“As we meditate, the body gets calmer and more relaxed, and as the body relaxes, the thoughts in the mind slow as well,” notes Eisner. “The practice of guiding the attention from the thoughts in our mind and back to the breath often gives way to our mind becoming clearer of thoughts, rather than our thoughts expanding and spiraling.” We’ve all likely fallen prey to spiraling thoughts before, and by stopping the unhelpful thought pattern in its tracks, Eisner says we take power away from that thought. “Meditation helps increase our ability to pay attention to our thoughts without feeding into them, which can decrease anxiety,” she says.
It helps minimize negative emotions.
Eisner says that meditation allows us to notice our negative thoughts without taking them as the truth or necessarily believing them, which can actually be a powerful shift. “We are able to distinguish that we are having a thought that “I am stupid’ from the reality that I am stupid,” she offers as an example. If you become aware that these are simply thoughts but not the reality, you reduce the impact or power of the negative belief and can work to change it. Similarly, meditation helps us confront and dismantle our negative emotions. “It’s not so much that we don’t have them anymore, but that we are not afraid of them or avoidant; we are able to feel them,” Eisner explains. “Ideally, let them come in, be experienced, and let them go.” She says that this acknowledgement and release brings a sense of peace and calm.
It can give a fresh perspective on situations.
“When we’re highly anxious, often our perspective is quite narrowed: we’re frozen in the present in a way that denies perspective,” explains Eisner. “We think we will feel this way—anxious, depressed, lonely—forever, and that we are the only ones who experience this kind of feeling.” She says that through the grounding and calming process of meditation, a different part of the brain gets turned on. This rational part of our mind grants us the perspective to understand that our experience or feeling is just temporary.
How to Meditate to Calm Anxiety
Though the actual practice of meditation is a personal experience and you should experiment to find what works best for you, Eisner walked us through the basic steps to help you get started.
- Find a comfortable position—seated or lying down—where you find a balance of being relaxed and alert.
- Bring your attention to where your body connects with the chair or floor, imagining roots going from these parts of your body deep down into the core of the Earth.
- Feel how gravity holds your body to the very spot where you are sitting/lying, and notice the outline of your body.
- Find the best place for you to observe your breath—whether your nose, throat, chest, or belly.
- Allow your breath to be however it is at that moment. There is no need to change it. Simply observe the ebbs and flows of your breath with a light but steady attention.
- As your mind gets distracted by your thoughts, just notice the thoughts and then gently—without judgment—bring your attention back to your breath.
Don’t feel badly if you notice your mind wandering back to your thoughts often. Eisner says that’s totally normal and part of the process. “It’s part of the practice to go back again and again, guiding the attention back to the breath,” she says. “The practice is also to notice the thoughts without getting caught up in them. So pretend the thoughts are a train. And instead of getting into each train car and looking around, and then going to the next train car and looking around, you are outside of the tracks watching the train pass by.”
Different Types of Meditation
”People think of traditional meditation as silently sitting on a cushion by yourself,” notes Price. “But there are all kinds of meditation techniques, each with their own intention." For example, 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.
So, don’t shy away from meditation just because you've tried it and didn't feel it worked for you—perhaps you just need a different type. "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."
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. According to Price, one of the best ways to do that 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," says Price.
"When you feel anxious, your body’s stress response is triggered, [but] taking deep, relaxed breaths can help get you back to baseline,” explains Price. “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 taking deep relaxing breaths, you can take yourself out of the mental loop that perpetuates anxious feelings,” explains Price. “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.”
"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.” Scan 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, and continue down your whole body to your toes until you are completely loose and relaxed.
"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. "You can do this by pausing to feel the weight of your body and your feet firmly rooted to the ground.” She says you then note where the sensation of anxiety is experienced in your body, such as in your stomach or chest, and imagine that the uneasy sensation has gathered in the form of a dark cloud. "Take a deep breath, and as you exhale, imagine that the dark cloud is expelled from your body with your outgoing breath,” she explains. “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."
During a guided meditation, a meditation teacher, therapist, or other guide (such as a voice on an app) leads a meditation. Instead of independently focusing on an anchor like your breath, you attend to the teacher’s voice and follow their instructions. “If you find a teacher who is a good fit for you, guided meditations can be transcendent,” shares Eisner. “In guided meditation, the teacher holds space for you, creating what I see as a sacred atmosphere in which to let go and enter into the realm of deep connection with yourself and the world around you that meditation allows.” Eisner recommends Inscape, Insight Timer, Headspace, and Calm if you’re looking for guided meditation apps.
Mantra meditation involves silently repeating a word or very short phrase in your mind as you meditate. This is intended to help prevent your mind from wandering and quiet your mental chatter. Common mantras are “om” or “I am.”
Alternatives to Meditation for Anxiety
“If there is a history of trauma or overwhelming anxiety, sometimes sitting still in silence in meditation can be untenable,” shares Eisner. “It can feel risky or unsafe to either be still or to pay attention to what is happening in the mind and body.” In these cases, there are more active alternatives to facilitate presence and calm, such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, and walks in nature. Eisner is also a strong proponent of “forest bathing.” “It gives a similar effect of meditation—a grounding, centering, sense of being interconnected with all that is around you—but instead of focusing on silence, you are taking in the beauty of nature, which can have astounding effects,” she shares. “There is research on how looking at fractals (which are present in anything organic) is calming, and that the chemical compounds we breathe in in the woods have positive effects on our immune system.” Sounds like maybe I should tote my favorite meditation cushion to the woods for a double dose of calm.
Hoge EA, Bui E, Palitz SA, et al. The effect of mindfulness meditation training on biological acute stress responses in generalized anxiety disorder. Psychiatry Res. 2018;262:328–332. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2017.01.006
Athanas AJ, McCorrison JM, Smalley S, et al. Association between improvement in baseline mood and long-term use of a mindfulness and meditation app: observational study. JMIR Ment Health. 2019;6(5).
Taren AA, Gianaros PJ, Greco CM, et al. Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting state functional connectivity: a randomized controlled trial. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2015;10(12):1758–1768. doi:10.1093/scan/nsv066