Mindfulness meditation can of course be beneficial in many different ways. One of the ways that I have seen mindfulness really impact my life is with my anxiety. I actually didn’t realize it for a year or so after meditating, but my anxiety attacks really stopped when I began practicing regularly. My practice has helped me in many areas of my life, both on and off the cushion. However, I really came to meditation practice with the hope of easing my anxiety. Here are a few ways in which mindfulness practice has directly impacted my anxiety.
Tuning into the Body
Tuning into the body is one of the most foundational and beneficial mindfulness practices, and the body is the first of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Through body scans, mindful eating, and bringing my practice to daily life, I’ve learned to really get in touch with my body. I definitely did not realize how out of touch I was with my experience in the body, especially when experiencing anxiety.
As I tune into the body in both formal meditation practice and throughout my daily life, I begin to see the more subtle experiences. I notice anxiety and worry when they’re small and approachable, generally long before it’s grown into the unmanageable state of a panic attack. I’ve grown to notice the tightness in the chest, the tensing of the muscles in the stomach, and the increased energy in my arms. As I notice it more and more, I’m able to get to know it more deeply and not react so strongly.
Not Buying into Thoughts
This is a huge piece of mindfulness practice and a place where I’ve grown greatly. I’ve learned to stop trying to block negative thoughts, and be with whatever arises. I’ve learned to let go of thoughts and not believe each and everyone that arises. I read once in Adyashanti’s book Falling into Grace that we often hear or read ideas in a book, on television, or from a friend. When we come across these ideas, we question if they’re true and if we agree with them. However, we often just listen to our thoughts without really questioning them in the same way.
By tuning into the thinking mind, I’ve slowly learned to see that every thought I have isn’t necessarily true. The mind’s job is to think, and it’s not just my mind that does so. In moments of anxiety, I can notice the mind begin to move more quickly. Thoughts come and go in rapid succession. As I notice the thinking mind in my meditation practice, I’m able to notice it with more ease in daily life. When the mind begins moving like this, I can notice the thoughts come and go without allowing each one to take me off on a trip.
Using the Breath
I can’t write a post about mindfulness and anxiety and not mention the breath! When you think of meditation, you may think specifically of focusing on the breath. It’s a common practice for many reasons, and has many benefits. First, I can let the body breathe itself, not trying to control the breath. With each inhale and exhale that I pay attention to, the mind settles and focuses. It brings me back to the present moment and helps me to be where I am.
I also love taking some intentional breaths. For example, I try to breathe in while counting to 3, and breathe out while counting to 4. Then I breathe in counting to 4, and out counting to 5, and so on. Making the exhale longer has been proven by studies to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, ease the heart rate, and lessen anxiety. When we take a long and slow exhale, we are literally changing the way our bodies work and decreasing anxiety. This simple exercise has made a huge difference for me when experiencing anxiety.
I’ve found a pretty close correlation with regular meditation practice and decreased anxiety. Although mindfulness in general has helped me, the most benefit has come during the times in which I am sitting regularly. Even if it’s only for 5 minutes a day, the continuity offers me the opportunity to really make the practice part of my life. When I sit regularly, I find myself having moments of mindfulness more and more often randomly throughout my days.
Regular practice is really one of the best things I can suggest to anyone experiencing anxiety. Practicing these things daily has deeply changed me. My relationship to the body, the thoughts, and the experience of anxiety has grown into one of understanding and compassion. Although I of course still experience worry and anxiety like anyone else does, I no longer react with resistance and judgement.
About the Author
Elevation Behavioral Health is a dual-diagnosis treatment facility in Agoura Hills, California. As a small treatment center offering many non 12-step options, they really excel at meeting the needs of each and every client individually. Visit them at www.ElevationBehavioralHealth.com.