- Meditation alleviates anxiety by de-activating regions of the brain responsible for stress and fear.
- Meditation also relieves physical symptoms of stress like rapid heart rate and high blood pressure.
- Meditation exercises for anxiety include grounding exercises and body scans.
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While therapy and medication can help treat anxiety, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting meditation can be helpful as well, says Gary Soffer, MD, an integrative medicine specialist at Yale Medicine.
There are many types of meditation that can help with anxiety and the best one for you can vary depending on the symptoms you’re experiencing, says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Urban Balance.
How meditation reduces anxiety
According to Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a psychologist with a private practice, regularly practicing meditation eases anxiety by:
- Reducing the size of the amygdala, or the part of the brain responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress. This can help lower your stress and anxiety levels.
- Increasing the thickness of the hippocampus, or the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory.
- De-activating the default mode network (DMN), or the region of the brain responsible for mind-wandering and anxiety-causing thoughts.
- Reducing physical symptoms of stress and anxiety, such as elevated heart rate and increased muscle tension.
Meditation can also offer other benefits for people with anxiety, says Romanoff. According to Romanoff, these include:
- Providing immediate relief from anxiety symptoms
- Helping you focus on the present
- Improving your capacity to manage future stressful situations
- Increasing patience and tolerance
In fact, a small 2014 study of individuals diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder found those who undertook an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) meditation program saw a reduction in anxiety symptoms, such as chronic worry, irritability, muscle tension, and poor sleep.
3 meditation exercises for anxiety
Romanoff recommends practicing the following exercises daily, preferably when you’re not in a heightened emotional state, to get the hang of them. She suggests making them a part of your morning routine and then using them during the day if you begin to feel anxious.
1. Grounding exercises
Grounding exercises help you focus on the present if anxious thoughts start crowding your mind. Here are a few examples of this type of meditation:
- List five things you can see.
- List five objects you can touch.
- List five sounds you can hear.
- List five things you can smell.
2. Body scan meditation
This meditation exercise releases physical and mental tension. It can help you achieve a deep state of relaxation, which can be particularly helpful if you’re trying to fall asleep. Here’s how to do it:
- Sit or lie down comfortably.
- Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, filling your belly with air.
- Bring your awareness to your feet and try to relax them.
- Slowly work your way up your body, one body part at a time.
- If you notice any pain or discomfort, focus your attention on it and breathe into the body part.
3. Look, point, and name exercise
If you feel like you are about to have a panic or anxiety attack, the following exercise can help orient you with your surroundings and stop the spiral of thoughts:
- Scan your surroundings.
- Select an object and point at it.
- Say its name out loud.
- Repeat five times, or until you feel calmer and more in control.
Meditation can help put a stop to anxious thoughts, lower your stress levels, regulate your emotions, and reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety such as elevated heart rate and increased muscle tension.
If you’re new to meditation, there are simple mindfulness and relaxation meditation exercises you can start with, to help you feel less anxious and more present. “Many people get results within a few minutes on their first time,” says Daramus.