Is Anxiety Interfering with Your Life? Mindfulness Meditation Can Help
Anxiety – fear, sleeplessness, trembling, difficulty breathing, body aches, chest pain, chills, dizziness, nausea, racing heartbeat – surely all this misery requires medication for relief.
Not necessarily. A growing number of studies show that the practice of mindfulness meditation can be as effective as medication for many sufferers.
Mindfulness meditation was developed as a medical treatment in the Western world in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a University of Massachusetts Medical School professor. His secular technique, based on centuries-old Buddhist meditation techniques, is called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. I personally attended that program and have been using it with my clients with very satisfactory results.
The goal of mindfulness meditation is to focus completely on how you are feeling in the moment, releasing thoughts of the past or concerns about the future. When you are in the midst of the symptoms of an anxiety attack, focusing on those feelings may seem like the last thing you want to do, but in fact by calmly observing your own symptoms you can rob them of their power. Anxiety is triggered when we anticipate negative consequences in the future, so focusing in the present and realizing that everything is ok will help a lot.
Mindfulness meditation is much more than just sitting and following your mind on its meandering course. It is a training program for your brain.
Our minds are usually free to travel where they will, including into stressful memories and irrational worries about what might be. By practicing mindfulness regularly you can teach your mind to be present in the moment. And most important, you will be able to be aware of your thoughts, including those that produce your anxiety. That will allow you to not feel so attached to them and will avoid an automatic stressful reaction.
Mindfulness meditation is an effective partner of cognitive-behavioral talk therapy. Your therapist may devote part of each session to learning and practicing the meditation skills you will use on your own between sessions. A “formal” meditation session might go like this:
- Find a quiet, restful place.
- Get comfy. You can sit on the floor if you want, but a straight-backed chair is perfectly acceptable.
- Good posture will help your mind to stay alert for the work it is doing. That means shoulders squared, spine straight, hips aligned.
- Breathe regularly and deeply. Follow the breath. Notice the movement of the breath, the coolness as it enters and the warmth as it leaves.
- After a few minutes (10 or 20) observing your breath, you can also passively observe your surroundings, the sounds, the weight and movement of the air around you, the smells brought to you on a breeze, the feel of the earth or floor or chair beneath you. Be aware of sensations, don’t seek them out.
- Your brain will inevitably come up with an unsolicited thought. Don’t judge it, don’t pursue it. Acknowledge it, watch it and let it go. And then go back to your breath.
- Do the same with the next thought and the next. Be a witness of your thoughts. Pay attention to how you are feeling in the moment. Are you anxious? Is your heart racing? Are your hands trembling? Notice each symptom. Don’t judge or try to fight off the feelings. Relax and let them be.
- Don’t be discouraged. At first, you may be able to sustain your mindfulness for only 10 or 15 seconds at a time. Keep bringing yourself back to mindfulness; this is the discipline you are learning and you will get better at it.
- Don’t go for a marathon. Even a few minutes of meditation will bring results.
Don’t force yourself. This is about having fun, about enjoying being a few minutes with yourself.
That’s a traditional session, but you can also practice mindfulness during many daily activities – while you’re taking a walk, showering or soaking in the tub, gardening, eating, exercising, or seated at your desk. Mindfulness is about being in the present moment. It doesn’t matter what you are doing.
The affects you can look forward to as your skill improves include lowered heart rate, lowered blood pressure, greater clarity in your thinking and, best of all, resistance to stress and anxiety.