Does Meditation Cure Anxiety?
In my teaching, one topic that comes up a lot is, “does meditation cure anxiety”?
It’s a valid question. So many people tend toward feeling anxious. They are unable to keep the bombardment of rogue thoughts from assaulting the brain. I know. I used to be there.
Lots of thoughts
This is the scenario for many people. In fact, most humans can have up to 70,000 thoughts per day, many of which are judgmental and negative. No wonder so many walk around stressed and on edge.
Does, then, meditation help cure anxiety? While the answer isn’t a “thousand times, yes,” there is an affirmative: meditation does help with anxiety. It is not a quick cure, but it is a long-term fix.
Part of the reason quite a few people feel such anxiety in the modern world is because of evolution. When humans were more nomadic, they had to constantly be on the lookout for threats in the environment.
Other animals, other people, the weather, changing seasons, finding food, securing shelter, ceaselessly on the move – these all vied for their attention.
This was for good reason: it meant survival.
This tendency to be on the lookout didn’t just go away as the world became more comfortable and humans created settlements. We are programmed to assess our environment – constantly.
The speed of light
In modern society, things happen at the speed of light, thanks to advances in technology. People are bombarded with virtual threats (as well as legitimate real ones). The brain doesn’t distinguish between the anxiety of forgetting to pay the electric bill or running from a rogue grizzly bear.
To the brain, it’s all the same. It releases all the same stress hormones for each stressful event it perceives. The heart speeds up, the breath becomes shallow, and a person might be ready to fight or flee.
The anterior cingulate
Many people don’t have much trouble filtering and regulating their emotions. But many more do. It has to do with the structure of the brain.
The anterior cingulate is one area of the brain responsible for controlling emotions and thoughts. People who have trouble activating this part of the brain experience higher levels of anxiety.
Another area of the brain, the amygdala, governs the flight or fight response. A larger amygdala means a person is more prone to experiencing symptoms of stress or anxiety.
This is where meditation comes in. A mindfulness practice (a focus on the breath) can help jumpstart the anterior cingulate and reduce the size of the amygdala. These then allow an individual to better-regulate their own levels of anxiety.
It is said that if you’re anxious, you’re in the “future” and if you’re depressed, you’re in the “past.” It is possible to be at peace, and that’s in the present.
When you take a deep breath, this is a signal to the brain that it’s okay to relax. (This is opposite of the fight or flight response that creates more rapid, shallow breathing.)
Meditation with a focus on the breath is one of the best long-term activities that anxious-prone individuals can try. The brain relaxes and gets more oxygen, the anterior cingulate kicks in, and the body experiences a greater levels of calm.
How does meditation work?
A meditation with a focus on the breath not only helps the body become more relaxed, but it starts to re-train the brain to interrupt thoughts as they come. This is because as a person notices thoughts, they can then refocus on the breath.
Over time, a regular practice of meditation then helps a person to be able to let thoughts go with more ease. An “observer” emerges. This is the part of the mind that can “watch” as a person thinks their thoughts. People then start to see how they are separate from their thoughts.
You are not your thoughts. People aren’t their thoughts.
With a deepening practice, these thoughts begin to come more slowly. The “space” of silence gets bigger, little by little. First in microseconds. Then maybe one second, two seconds, and so on.
A meditator learns to control thoughts a little more easily. A person doesn’t have to identify with their thoughts.
Rule your mind, or you will be ruled by it. –Horace
Meditation works over the long term. If you have anxious thoughts and try meditation for 5 minutes, and then never establish a daily practice, you won’t experience a decrease in anxiety.
Having a regular practice is key.
There are other considerations and things to try:
- Exercise – this helps to get any stress build-up and excess energy out of your system. Plus it’s good for your overall health, the heart, and optimal functioning of the body.
- Diet – if you eat donuts for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you’re going to contribute to your own sense of anxiety through lack of self-care. A wholesome diet not only helps the body function better, but you feel better overall.
- Walking – related to getting exercise, walking can help clear the mind give you some perspective
- Hold your thumb – one way to help with worry is a jin shin jyutsu technique of curling one hand around the opposite thumb and holding for 1-2 minutes. Then repeat on the other hand.
My personal practice
Let me just say that one of the reasons I came into meditation was not only for the spiritual aspect (I love mystery!), but also because I am a “natural-born worrier.”
I was that kid that fretted over the plight of animals, the environment, if my parents were arguing, if I remembered to complete all my homework, to name a few things. I never grew out of it.
As an adult, there are so many things to fret about: did I say the right thing? Why did she look at me that way? Am I doing all right at work? I should be more helpful. Maybe I should do better at this or that or that or this….
Years ago, I turned to meditation knowing that it would help my own anxiety. I didn’t want to take medication for it if I didn’t have to. Nor did I want to live my life constantly on edge, enduring headaches and digestive issues as a result.
By my mid-20s, I was experiencing enough anxiety that I considered medication. I was more interested, however, in self-healing. And so I started to meditate.
The result is that I am much more calm in all of life’s situations.
To be sure, there are ups and downs. I can’t control what happens in life, but I am much better at controlling my reaction to them. Sometimes I still experience worry or anxiety, but I have much greater control over my thoughts, and I am more responsive to life, and not reactive.
Furthermore, my thoughts aren’t nearly as judgmental. I’m kinder to myself and to others.
I feel like there will come a day when I can completely detach from my thoughts. This will be when I have reached a point in my practice that I experience regular transcendence.
Until then, I’m always working on my own practice that I know has helped me immeasurably.