Our adrenal glands start flaring whenever we’re in a dangerous situation or potential conflict, activating the “fight or flight” mechanism, or when we’re a bag of nerves ahead of delivering a speech, a must-win sports game, or walking up the aisle, for example. That’s anxiousness.
But anxiousness becomes generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) when the fear or worry doesn’t abate, escalating into a sense of impending doom, constant ruminating, catastrophic, and, in some cases, panic. Anxiety on this scale can be all-consuming, debilitating, and distressing.
Stress can, of course, induce anxiety, and there is an overlap between the two in terms of the physiological reactions. Stress is a heightened emotional state that dissipates once a stressful situation is over whereas GAD is a diagnose condition that tends to persist for long periods.
Anxiety that becomes a disorder is characterized by a “persistent and excessive worry” where individuals can lose rational perspective and “expect the worst even when there is no apparent reason for concern,” according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Understanding anxiety is the first step in managing it. In knowing its erratic nature, we can obtain a better sense of triggering situations and how our anxiety operates — and that’s where meditation comes in.
Anxiety is a cognitive state connected to an inability to regulate emotions. But research shows that a consistent meditation practice reprograms neural pathways in the brain and, therefore, improves our ability to regulate emotions.
Through meditation, we familiarize ourselves with anxiety-inducing thoughts and storylines. We learn to see them, sit with them, and let them go. In doing so, we learn two important things: thoughts do not define us, and thoughts are not real. Within this newfound perspective, we are able to gradually change our relationship with anxiety, differentiating between what is an irrational episode and what’s true.
Another benefit of this skill is learning body awareness, which teaches us to bring our attention to any physical sensations felt in the moment. This technique involves mentally scanning your body, inch by inch, making us more attuned to what is being experienced physically. In exploring these sensations, you sit with your senses in the same way you sit with your thoughts. This go-to technique can provide a safe place that can be repeatedly accessed whenever anxiety starts to creep in.
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 to bring a focus that’s much more concentrated and centered, so narrower, on breathing in one region of our bodies—the breath of the belly, or the chest, or the nostrils, or anywhere that the breath makes itself known, and keeping that more concentrated focus.
- Bring your attention to your body. move out to become aware of sensations in the body as a whole, sitting with the whole body, the whole breath, once again we move back to wider and spacious container of attention for our experience.
Mindfulness is not a panacea. It’s not the right choice for everyone. But, according to some research, when you can create a little 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
In recent years there has been a steady stream of research showing the power of mindfulness meditation to reduce anxiety. Until now, the specific brain mechanisms of how meditation relieves anxiety at a neural level were unknown.
On June 3, 2013 researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center published a study titled “Neural Correlates of Mindfulness Meditation-Related Anxiety Relief” in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience which identifies brain regions activated by mindfulness meditation.
Anxiety is a cognitive state connected to an inability to regulate your emotional responses to perceived threats. Mindfulness meditation strengthens a person’s cognitive ability to regulate emotions. “Although we’ve known that meditation can reduce anxiety, we hadn’t identified the specific brain mechanisms involved in relieving anxiety in healthy individuals,” said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., postdoctoral research fellow in neurology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the study. “In this study, we were able to see which areas of the brain were activated and which were deactivated during meditation-related anxiety relief.”