Anxiety is a common problem, one that comes in many different forms and which is on the rise due to the stress, isolation, and very real concerns wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even in more ordinary times, though, anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness in adults, affecting about 40 million Americans each year. Another significant group experiences sub-clinical anxiety, which can best be described as elevated stress and worry that is noticeable, but which is ultimately not an impediment to normal daily activities.
Of course, no matter how common anxiety is, or how hard we work to integrate such emotions into our daily lives, suffering from anxiety - especially when it’s severe - is extremely unpleasant. That’s why, in response, many people choose to take medication to lessen their symptoms. This can be helpful, but medication alone is rarely enough. Medications may also stop working, and it’s helpful to have other coping skills, such as meditation, in your pocket.
Developing a meditation routine can be hard at first, even if you don’t have anxiety, but for those with anxiety, it may feel deeply uncomfortable or even temporarily increase your anxiety. That’s okay, and entirely normal. It may also mean you need to try a different style of meditation. The key is to be persistent, open to the potential benefits of meditation, and take your time. Meditation and mindfulness practices are scientifically proven to reduce stress and anxiety, but finding that new, healthier mindset, even for a moment, is the hardest part
When exploring meditation strategies, you may run into a lot of information about mindfulness - which raises the question, what exactly is the difference? To put it simply, Western resources often use the terms interchangeably, but it’s more accurate to describe the two as companion terms. Mindfulness is a particular skill; it is the ability to exist in the present moment, with a sense of openness or receptiveness. Meditation is the exercise that develops mindfulness. When you meditate, you are taking a step away from the everyday world and practicing - actively learning to be mindful. Like anything else, it’s a skill that needs to be honed.
When we say that meditation can help manage anxiety, then, we mean that stepping away from your usual environment or habits and setting aside time to practice mindfulness can make a difference. That’s because, over time, practicing meditation makes it easier for you to move into a state of mindfulness any time you want or need to. This can significantly help you quell anxiety in the moment, without having to leave a stressful or triggering situation. The task at hand is to practice meditation often enough that mindfulness comes naturally.
So, how do you develop a meditation practice? Get started today with Aura, an integrated platform that offers meditation support along with additional tools like a gratitude journal, music, nature sounds, and life coaching. At Aura, we’re committed to helping you find peace, not by rerouting your journey, but by accompanying you on it - and that may start with a meditation practice that gets your stress under control.
One of the most common symptoms of anxiety is thought distortions, which include patterns such as forecasting or catastrophizing, in which your brain predicts the worst possible outcome in a situation, self-defeating or discouraging thoughts, in which you convince yourself of your own incapacity to handle a task or situation, and mind-reading, in which we believe we know what others are thinking about us or our abilities. These thoughts very rarely reflect reality, and even when they do - even when the worst-case scenario does arise - they are an indicator of unproductive processes that will prevent you from living a fulfilling life. Part of addressing your anxiety, then, is to identify these thought processes as they’re happening so that you can diffuse them, and meditation can help with this.
Meditation can help you address negative or destructive thoughts, not by demanding you stop thinking them, but by helping you recognize and create distance from them, and there are a number of ways to approach this. One recommendation is a bit like the popular stage fright recommendation to imagine your audience in their underwear, which is a strategy meant to take power away from the source of your anxiety.
In this case, it might mean repeating the negative thought - but in a silly way. Imagine it in a cartoon voice or said by someone who has just inhaled a bunch of helium. It’s much harder to take such thoughts seriously when they’re set in this kind of ludicrous manner.
Another way to dispel anxiety-causing thoughts involves acknowledging it - and then dismissing the thought. It’s one thing for your mind to tell you that you’re going to fall on your face during that date, and another thing for you to repeat it aloud as though your mind is a separate person - “Yep, I sure am going to fall on my face.Thanks for that, brain. You can go now.” It may sound silly, but that’s precisely the point. Because these thoughts don’t reflect reality, or reflect something that has been overblown in your mind (for example, if you fall down, you my blush, but all you have to do is stand back up).
Such practices, especially when performed at a quiet time when you don’t have to attend to anything else, give you a chance to send anxiety-producing thoughts on their merry way under low-stakes conditions. Eventually, you’ll also be able to do it in the moment, like when that downer voice intrudes during an important meeting.
While many people with anxiety experience distinct thought patterns and disruptive thoughts, others may largely experience their symptoms as living in a state of hypervigilance. Hypervigilant people are jumpy - shocked by fairly ordinary sensations and sounds like a dog barking or someone tapping them on the shoulder. It’s a hard way to live, and is often a result of trauma.
When we see hypervigilance responses, what we can infer is that your brain is living on high alert. This may chemically manifest itself through the production of extra epinephrine (or adrenaline) and cortisol, a stress hormone. Over time, this imbalance, particularly the overproduction of cortisol, can also cause physical health problems, but learning to control your breathing and be present with each breath can help recalibrate your body.
There are many types of meditation that focus on the breath, including some types of yoga and mindfulness meditation, but you don’t need highly technical tools to practice breathing. All you need to do is find a quiet, comfortable place and pay attention. Breathe in deeply through your nose, pause, then exhale through your mouth. Some people choose to breathe based on timed counts, often the 4-7-8 pattern that’s also used in Lamaze, while others breathe along to a guided meditation or visualization, in which a voice introduces a calming structure and setting.
How does controlled breathing reduce your anxiety? Though you’re obviously breathing all the time, many people with anxiety take frequent, shallow breaths - not so much that they hyperventilate, but to a great enough extent that it can worsen anxiety symptoms. Though the science isn’t completely clear, some believe that breathing quickly may trigger anxiety and other negative emotions, while others think it simply makes the body more attuned to those feelings.
On the other hand, when people practice breathing slowly as part of a meditation practice, one thing that researchers have found is that it can increase their heart rate variability (HRV). HRV closely correlates with autonomic nervous system function, with higher variability associated with a better ability to adapt to physical or emotional change. Your autonomic nervous system is also what controls whether you go into fight or flight mode, a common problem in those with anxiety disorders. By gaining greater control over this function through meditation, you can decrease your predisposition to panic attacks and other anxiety symptoms.
Persistent anxiety can be overwhelming, and the idea that you could take control of what feels like a negative but automatic process may only
add to those feelings, but it’s important to remember that this kind of change doesn’t happen overnight. For a meditation practice to meaningfully change your body’s response to anxiety, you have to commit to a practice, and most people require support to develop a meditation practice successfully.
If you’re looking for the easiest and most reliable way to get started with meditation, you’ll want to enlist the help of a meditation app like Aura. Get started with the Aura Meditation and Sleep app for iOS or for Android today, and start practicing meditation like a pro!
Now, all that’s left is to find a quiet spot, get comfortable, and take a deep breath. Open your heart and your mind and pay attention to what passes through your mind. We’ll be with you every step of the way.