Many studies show that mindfulness works well to relieve anxiety. Even beginners with as little as one hour of meditation training can see noticeable improvement in their anxiety.
I have blogged before that we are all, to some extent, susceptible to negative emotions. So if you are struggling with anxiety, you are not alone. Mindful attention training can help you cope with uncertainty and thereby decrease the vulnerability to anxiety that we all have.
There are two main methods to work with anxiety: turn toward the anxiety and turn away from it. In Unified Mindfulness, these are called Focus In and Focus Out, respectively.
Both methods also strengthen your core mindfulness skills. This means that you will gradually and permanently reduce your tendency to anxiety no matter which you choose.
Both methods are useful when anxiety is about to take you over. But for them to be most effective, you should train regularly, even when anxiety is not impending or active.
Experience will teach you which technique works best for you and in what situations. For example, one method may be particularly effective when anxiety peaks, while another works well for daily meditation practice.
In addition to working directly with anxiety, everyday noticing and creating positive thoughts and feelings make you less vulnerable to anxiety. In Unified Mindfulness, we call this Nurture Positive.
NB: If you have unresolved trauma, a common source of anxiety, you should take some precautions when meditating.
Focus In: Turn your attention toward the anxiety
Focus In is the meditation path where you are aware of your inner experience, how you experience the moment through thoughts and feelings.
Turning toward anxiety may seem like a strange strategy, but it is the most effective for many. Especially with panic attacks, it is not uncommon for fear of the fear itself to be an important part of the anxiety. When we turn toward something unpleasant like fear, it entails acceptance. The more acceptance, the more you decrease the fear and hence the anxiety.
Focus on the emotions
For many, it helps simply to keep attention on the body and emotions. When you do this, notice how the emotions arise and express themselves. Allow them to be exactly as they are.
If you have trouble accepting the feelings, try something different: accept that you do not accept the feelings. This may enable you to practice acceptance even in an overwhelming situation.
Focus on the thought process
Another useful strategy is to focus on the thought process. Many people suffering from anxiety have difficulty distinguishing unproductive worry from thoughts that actually solve problems.
In particular, try noticing how your thoughts come and go, without getting hung up on the content. This way the thoughts will become less weighty and you can identify less with them.
Read more about Focus In.
Focus Out: Turn your attention away from the anxiety
The other way to deal with anxiety is to turn away from anxiety. There are several ways to do this. See what works best for you.
Focus on the breath
Paying attention to your breathing may help with anxiety for several reasons.
The breath is an anchor for concentration that is always present. Also, the breath is constantly changing, which helps remind you that you are meditating.
Focusing on the breath often makes you breathe slower, which signals the brain’s stress centers to take it easy. You can help that process by consciously breathing a little deeper and slower for a while. You might try exhaling a little longer than you inhale, as this has a particularly calming effect.
A rhythm that works for many is 6–2–8: count to six while you breathe in; hold your breath for two counts; exhale for eight. Repeat. If this is too slow, speed up a little with 4–1–6. Or try other rhythms until you find one that suits you.
Read more about using the breath as a quick remedy for stress.
Focus on external sensory experiences
For some, focusing on breathing may seem even more stressful.
If that’s the case for you, try focusing on external sensory impressions: sounds, sights, body touches, and so on.
It can be helpful to put a simple label on sensory impressions, such as “see”, “feel”, or more descriptive names such as “blue table” or “feet against the carpet”. You can also actively create sensory impressions, such as touching yourself in a calming way.
Read more about Focus Out.
In addition to Focus In and Focus Out, it is helpful to practice finding, creating, and reinforcing positive thoughts and feelings. This is called Nurture Positive.
There are many ways to train in Nurture Positive, but I want to emphasize kindness meditation and mapping support in this context.
In kindness meditation, you practice being more kind to yourself and others. There are many versions of this, and I particularly like Daron Larson’s approach.
Mapping support comes from Mark Walsh, who has extensive experience working with people who struggle with anxiety after trauma.
The basic idea is to map (list) the resources you have to assist with your anxiety. That activity alone counteracts negativity and helps most people feel better. And once you have a list, you can use it to remind yourself of the support you already have and can call on for help.
To do mapping support, set aside 20 minutes to brainstorm and list available resources that can give you meaningful support. The main idea is that if your situation feels unsafe, focus on what you can actually control. Here are some examples; use them to inspire others:
- Physical and environmental support: your bathtub, your garden, parks, and forests you can visit.
- Social support: coworkers you can contact; friends who are kind, empathetic, funny, or inspiring; actual or potential mentors.
- Practice support: meditation; yoga; exercise.
- Online support: Positive online meetings such as meditations, classes, discussions, especially with a group or social element; online friends.
- Spiritual support: Your faith; your ancestors.
Read more about Nurture Positive.
The role of the body
Also, remember that many other things are just as useful for anxiety as mindfulness and meditation.
In the big picture, it is more important to put these in place first before you look at meditation.
- Get enough quality sleep. Most people need 7–8 hours of sleep each night. For the best possible sleep, stay outdoors for a while when it’s bright and limit blue light from lamps and screens before going to bed. This regulates melatonin, the sleep hormone. Feel free to take a nap in the middle of the day, even if you don’t think you need it
- Move your body daily, preferably getting yourself a little tired. Formal workouts are good, but you can also dance, play, walk, and not least everyone’s favorite — do housework.
- Notice how what you eat and drink affects your anxiety. Pay special attention to coffee, nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs. For some people, hidden intolerance to certain foods can also aggravate anxiety.