Meditation for Anxiety Relief
Anxiety is something many of us deal with on a daily basis. Over forty-two million Americans deal with anxiety disorders every year, and many of us carry a feeling of stress and worry with us regularly. Unfortunately, anxiety and stress can arise from a ton of different causes, and there isn’t one answer that fits all cases. However, we can look at anxiety through the lens of mindfulness and meditation to gain a new understanding of anxiety, how meditation and anxiety go together, and how we can actually practice.
We recently did a survey on our website with many different questions about meditation and our visitors. One of the interesting things we found was that eighty-two precent of respondents said they came to meditation practice to help with anxiety. This points toward how pervasive anxiety is in our world, and just how many people find meditation useful for approaching worry and stress.
There are guided meditations for anxiety at the bottom of the post which you can listen to for free!
Understanding Anxiety and Stress
Dukkha and Dissatisfaction
First, let us be clear in stating that we are not here to provide professional medical or psychiatric advice. We seek to offer an understanding of anxiety that is rooted in our tradition of mindfulness and meditation. The Buddha taught about four noble truths, one of the most foundational teachings of the Buddha. The very first of these noble truths is that life is full of dukkha. Dukkha is a Pali word that can be translated a number of ways, but the most common words we use in English are “suffering” and “stress.”
The trick with dukkha is that manifests in many different ways. One of my favorite definitions and the one that I think most captures its meaning is “dissatisfaction.” That is, dukkha refers to the constant dissatisfaction we all experience. No matter how much we grow spiritually, how many things we acquire, or how many goals we achieve, we are bound to experience a sense of dissatisfaction. It arises in many forms: anxiety, worry, regret, resentment, anger, fear, and many more. My experience is that the root of our dukkha is us wanting things to be other than how they are, or wishing we were somewhere other than where we are.
It’s important to understand that there is a difference between normal pain and this suffering. For example, we may bump into a table and hurt our knee. This is normal pain that happens. The suffering comes when we respond. We wish it didn’t happen like that, we label ourselves as clumsy, and we beat ourselves up. This reaction is dukkha, the dissatisfaction we create.
Anxiety as Dukkha
We can understand anxiety through the lens of dukkha. In moments of anxiety, we are often experiencing a number of things. When we notice the anxiety is there, our response can dictate how much the worry and stress grow. Often, when anxious feelings arise, we tighten and brace for impact without noticing we are doing so. People respond in many different ways to anxiety. Some people try to figure it out in their heads, while others fight it and try to deny it. These reactions actually compound our suffering.
One of the things we learn in mindfulness practice is to watch what happens and how the mind reacts. Meditating for anxiety relief means we watch how we respond to moments of discomfort and how we are creating suffering by resisting how we feel, engaging the thought processes, and/or allowing it to take hold of our experience completely. It isn’t as easy as it sounds, so don’t beat yourself up too badly if you struggle with this!
Breaking Down Anxiety
When we break down anxiety (or other emotions like stress, joy, anger, or love) we can see that an emotion really consists of two things: a bodily sensation and a mental state. We call it an emotion, but often don’t actually question what this means. Try to see for yourself when you are having a feeling. What is actually happening?
The physical experience of anxiety may manifest differently for different people. When you experience something that causes anxiety, the sympathetic nervous system is engaged. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” response in the brain and body. This causes a hormone called adrenaline to be released. Adrenaline release causes increased heart rate, tensed muscles, heightened blood pressure, and sweating. If these sound like some of the symptoms you experience of anxiety, it is not a coincidence!
We can familiarize ourselves with the experience in the body of anxiety. When we notice ourselves stressed or feeling anxious, we can dramatically change our relationship with it by tuning into the feelings in the body. We can practice mindfulness of the body and see what it feels like to be anxious. As we get to know the feeling of anxiety physically, we can break it down and see it for what it is: a biological response in the body that causes a set of physical symptoms. This can help us detach from it and not take the experience so personally.
The mental experience of anxiety is likewise triggered by the sympathetic nervous system. In the brain, norepinephrine is released. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter, and its release in the brain decreases activity in the frontal lobe, increases activity in the amygdala, and sends the brain into fight or flight. When this happens, the ability for logical reasoning and problem solving decrease and the mind perceives threats much more often and strongly. The brain is trying to keep you safe, and essentially turns into a machine that processes stimuli and thoughts to tell you what is dangerous.
The mental state we experience in moments of anxiety often reflects this. We get stuck trying to figure it out our talk ourselves through something, we feel overwhelmed mentally, and we lose the ability to think clearly. This is the other half of experiencing anxiety. The mind goes into overdrive and we stop being able to think things through with logic. Although it may feel like we are figuring it out or working through it, we often don’t end up going anywhere other than in circles. We can watch this process and notice when it is happening. Again, tuning into it with mindfulness allows us to not be so consumed by it when it arises.
How Can Meditation Help?
Many people come to practice meditation for anxiety relief, and for good reason. Meditation can be an incredibly useful practice in dealing with anxiety, as a 2010 study found. A meta-analysis of multiple studies, it was found that mindfulness-based therapy and mindfulness meditation was effective at improving symptoms of anxiety. In those who met criteria for anxiety disorders, the effect was even larger. Meditation can help engage the parasympathetic nervous system overall and in moments of anxiety, which counteracts the activity of the sympathetic nervous system.
Meditation can help us ground ourselves in the present moment, taking us out of the thinking mind. Often in moments of anxiety, we get caught in our thoughts. With meditation practice we can achieve several things in relation to anxiety:
- Understanding what it actually feels like to be anxious
- Learning how we compound the suffering with our responses
- Engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to reduce anxiety
- Cultivating tools for responding differently to worry and stress
- Learning to respond with kindness and compassion rather than judgement
It’s important to understand that meditating one time may not make all the difference we seek. The practice takes time. Although we can use meditations in moments of anxiety to help relax and alleviate the anxiety, there is a bigger picture. With regular meditation practice, we can familiarize ourselves with the anxiety, learn to respond differently, and lessen the frequency with which we experience worry. Over time, we notice we have less panic attacks, feel more relaxed, and respond much differently when we do find ourselves in a moment of stress.
Guided Meditation for Anxiety
There are many different meditations that can be beneficial in relieving anxiety. Meditation in general can be helpful, but here are a few practices we like.
Letting Go Meditation
This is a meditation on letting go. We practice watching things arise in the mind and not attaching to the experience. It can help us learn to watch what is happening without reacting so strongly.
Guided Meditation for Anxiety and Sleep
Meditation can also help us fall asleep and deal with the anxiety we experience at night. We have a page of guided meditations for sleep with explanations of meditations, free meditations, and more information about this topic. Here is a guided body scan for falling asleep, which can help with the anxiety and stress we may experience at night.
Compassion for Anxiety
The other practice we love for working with anxiety is a compassion practice. Compassion is the practice of caring for our suffering and can be a way to train ourselves to respond with more patience and wisdom in moments of anxiety.
Check out our page of Anxiety Quotes for some great thoughts about anxiety and worry.