Meditation and mindfulness for anxiety: it's not what you think
March 13, 2018
The room is dark but for the light of a single candle casting a web of shadows across the room. A symphony of ambient wind chimes pours from the surround-sound speakers. A woman sits crosslegged on the floor with her hands facing the ceiling. She is breathing deeply. An hour passes.
Yes. This is meditation.
This is not the only kind of meditation, however.
Before I started practicing mindfulness and actively meditating, I thought it was all total hogwash. I also thought it was hogwash that I couldn't do even if I was somehow convinced it wasn't just silliness. Sit still and think about nothing for an extended period of time? Yea right! It sounded impossible and like a waste of my valuable time. Eventually, however, someone explained to me that there is more than one way to meditate, including moving meditations, and I started to get curious. Maybe this is something I can do? I was drawn to the idea of a free, at-home method for managing and easing my anxiety. Not to mention a growing desire to be more in tune and in-control of my emotions. Overtime I began to test the waters and explore those different options, starting with mindfulness meditations, heart meditations, and awareness mediations like yoga or even walking.
The medical and scientific support of meditation is growing hard to ignore. Numerous studies have been conducted to look at the affects of meditation on brain. Such studies have found that meditation and mindfulness activate different areas of the brain including the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and anterior insula. These different areas of the brain are responsible for regulating learning and memory, perspective-taking, and processing emotions. Meditative practices have been shown to increase the concentration of gray matter, which is critical to a functioning brain, in those areas. One study at Wake Forest Baptist found that mindfulness meditation activated these regions of the brain and had a direct link to lower anxiety levels*.
Meditation, in its many forms, can be a life changing source of stress relief or mental health support. If you're suffering from extreme anxiety, depression, disordered eating, or similar mental illness, it might not be enough on its own but various levels of meditation and mindfulness can be used as short-term coping mechanisms or to complement existing treatment plans. Regardless of the reason for your journey to meditation, the first thing to know is: it's not as scary as it looks.
I quickly found that I needed to start "small" with mediation practices. Mindfulness, breathing, and Loving-Kindness meditations were (and still are) much more attainable for me than something like "effortless presence," which is the process of using meditation to achieve a state where the attention is not focused on anything in particular. I live a loud, busy life and my brain tends to be even louder and busier, so jumping from all the thoughts to none of the thoughts is a big ask. If you find yourself in a similar place, some of the aforementioned styles might be a good start..
Here's a few approachable meditative practices for coping with anxiety, stress, and busy thoughts:
1. Practice a "mini" meditation: One mistake I made was googling meditations and thinking that I had to be able to sit through a thirty minute guided YouTube meditation for all of this to work. In truth, your meditative practice might start with just a few seconds or minutes. When my therapist suggested I start a daily Loving-Kindness meditation (we'll come back to this) for upwards of 10 minutes, I knew that wouldn't work. Instead, I started with three minutes. Then, when I started to forget to do even that little amount, I began using the Savasana period of my yoga classes to repeat my Loving-Kindness meditation. My advice would be to go into your first meditative practices with little expectations. Maybe start a timer on your phone and just see how long you last. Try to last a little longer the next time, and a little longer the next, until you find a time and practice that works for you.
2. Craft a Loving-Kindness meditation: Loving-Kindness mediations focus on developing compassion for oneself, for others, or for the world in general. Loving-Kindness is based in mindfulness and can help with the process of identifying and responding to emotions. This kind of meditation can be quite useful for folks (like me!) whose stress if often self-induced, who are hard on themselves, or who set high or unrealistic expectations of self. When my therapist suggested the Loving-Kindness mediation mentioned above, she suggested I repeat the phrase: "May I be happy, may be well, may I be filled with kindness and peace." She mentioned I could replace the subject with myself, others, or the world. After a few attempts, I started to realize I couldn't quite connect to the practice because it felt unnatural. Over time, I started shortening it to: "May I be happy and well" on days I was in need of a little self-directed love, or "May I be filled with kindness and peace" on days when I knew I needed to manage my anxiety to be the friend, girlfriend, daughter, and employee I want to be.
When you start exploring the different options and suggested "scripts" for meditation practices, remember there's no right or wrong way to meditate. You can change, shorten, or craft your own scripts.
3. Start with a "non-meditation" meditation: There's a form of meditation called "nondirective" that focuses on paying attention to something, like the breath or sound, without effort or attachment so the brain is free to wander. When you're just starting the practice of getting in touch with your mind and the process of non-attachment, even the idea of being alone with your own breath can sound like too much. This is where what I'm calling "non-meditation meditations" come in. Coloring (think adult coloring book or just notebook doodles), knitting, or other simple, repetitive crafts are great for breaking into that "mind wandering" states. One of my favorite authors, Jenny Lawson, published an adult coloring book-meets-uplifting-guide that I've been meaning to buy.
4. Start a Meditation Journal: At the end of the day, there's a lot of ways to meditate and sources to help you get started. What matters most is finding some techniques that work for you and sticking to it. As you explore different practices, keeping a meditation journal can help figure out what is and is not effective for you. Your journal can be as detailed or basic as you want, but having a record of your meditation progress will likely keep you more dedicated than without one. I've created a FREE PRINTABLE MEDITATION JOURNALto help get you started. This journal is a basic, customizable .PDF that you can simply print off, put in a binder, and use to track the different practices you try, how often and for how long, and how effective each is on your mood or anxiety levels. Download your journal and start meditation right now! (Seriously, drop and give me fifty OMs)
Run out of pages? Just duplicate the entry page as many times as you need to!
Have you tried any of the techniques here? Have other meditation or "non-meditation meditation" practices that work for you? Comment below! I'd love to hear and even give something new a try!
*Neural correlates of mindfulness meditation-related anxiety relief. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 9, Issue 6, 1 June 2014, Pages 751–759, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nst041