While, in the past, meditation was predominantly practised by Buddhist and Hindu monks for the purposes of spiritual growth and transcending emotions, it is now becoming popular with the average person as a way of improving personal wellbeing. Meditation in general, and the particular style of meditation known as mindfulness, are now also firmly establishing themselves as important components in the clinical management of stress and anxiety.
To understand how the two practices can be beneficial for combatting stress and anxiety, let’s first take a quick look at what stress and anxiety are.
Stress, for most people, is often a reaction to some sort of trigger and only lasts for a short while. It comes paired with a number of associated emotional and physical symptoms which can vary and change over time. Becoming aware of these triggers can help an individual better manage their stress levels.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is excessive worry about different matters. It occurs for longer durations and the size of the worry is usually way out of proportion to the size of the actual problem. For the most part, anxiety involves focusing on future events that might or might not occur. While sometimes the fear and worry can be somewhat unconscious non-verbal ‘background’ worry, it usually involves a lot of conscious ruminating on “what ifs” that which doesn’t produce solutions or plans of action.
Mindfulness and meditation can help reduce anxiety because two of their central aspects have to do with focusing your attention on what is happening in this present moment rather than on what might happen in the future or what has happened in the past and accepting rather than judging what is happening.
Coping with stress using mindfulness and meditation
Research into mindfulness meditation for stress relief and management shows that it helps reduce stress itself and that it also builds inner strength/peace so that future stressors have less of an impact on an individual’s wellbeing. Here are a few different ways this can work:
- Mindfulness makes an individual more aware of their thoughts, so that they can observe what they are thinking rather than being completely lost in them and swept away by them. This allows a person to step back and evaluate their situation and their thoughts before giving in to a stress response.
- Mindfulness training can also help develop an awareness of the sensations and needs of the body. This is especially important in cases where pain management is an issue. One of the ways that mindfulness can help individuals with pain is by getting the person to perceive the pain as just another sensation.
- Mindfulness meditation has been credited with improving emotional intelligence, due to the fact that when you stop being preoccupied with your own future ‘what ifs’ and, instead, place your full attention on what’s happening right now in front of you, you are more likely to become more aware of other people’s emotions, and therefore, are more likely to act wisely and less likely to get into conflict in stressful situations.
- Research shows that mindfulness practices reduce brain activity in the amygdala. This is the part of the brain that switches on a person’s stress response.
- Mindfulness also improves focus, allowing people to complete their work more efficiently and yielding a greater sense of well-being – a higher level of accomplishment naturally translates into a reduced stress response.
- And finally, mindfulness is a tool that teaches a person to take on a different approach to stress. Instead of experiencing the negative consequences of stress, you can learn to think differently about the stress itself.
Coping with anxiety using mindfulness and meditation
Mindfulness meditation presents you the opportunity to investigate the nature of your own mind and being. This inquiry can help you examine the thoughts and emotions that are contributing to your anxiety, where ‘examine’ means to look at them objectively, as if they were someone else’s thoughts and emotions. It is also a chance to self-reflect and filter out any of the “what ifs” mentioned earlier.
Another important change that mindfulness brings is a change in attitude. An anxious person is caught between conflicting goals: one part of them keeps pulling them to focus on the fearful ‘what ifs’, while another part of them hates the feeling of anxiety and wants to push it away and avoid it. Mindfulness meditation teaches you to to stop pushing the anxious feelings away and to simply observe them without judging them. It teaches you to say, “This is what’s happening,” instead of, “A terrible thing is happening.” You suffer less when you accept a feeling of discomfort rather than fighting it.
Anxiety that remains unchecked becomes the foundation of many clinical conditions. Here mindfulness meditation can help in the following ways:
- Mindfulness meditation helps quiet the mind to the surrounding chaos. Chaos does everything in its power to draw attention, keeping your anxiety levels high. Chaos often comes with physical stress, which is a common side effect of anxiety. Mindfulness techniques such as breathing exercises can help calm the chaos.
- On another front, anger is a different form of anxiety. Mindfulness meditation can help redirect anger by staying in the present moment, and not thinking about the reasons for the anger. Then once your meditation session is over, and the anger has passed, you can think about how to resolve the issue.
- Mindful meditation is also seen as a way to break negative thought patterns. The practice can reduce rumination, even in patients with lifelong mood disorders.
- Research shows that meditation techniques can reduce anxiety by making physical changes within the body:
- Scientific studies show that it causes as increased levels of GABA which is a neurotransmitter required for feeling happy and relaxed. Low levels can result in feeling anxious, overstimulated, and overwhelmed.
- Other evidence suggests that mindfulness meditation can enhance mood by increasing increasing serotonin levels and reducing cortisol levels.
- Anxiety has also been linked to inflammatory activity in the brain: elevated cytokine levels wreak havoc causing inflammation leading to anxiety, depression and other mood disorders. The practise of mindfulness meditation can reduce inflammation and alter the expression of pro-inflammatory genes.
Is mindfulness meditation for everyone?
Despite its many benefits, some people may find that meditation is not for them and may worsen their anxiety. Particularly anxious people may manage to focus on the present moment which can itself send them into a spiral of anxious thinking. For such minds, different techniques may be better suited such as focusing on a specific object, repeating a mantra or even using breathing exercises.
And there is a small percentage of people who start to have a panic attack if they become too relaxed.
Mindfulness meditation helps to reduce anxiety and stress through a variety of mechanisms including:
- physical changes to body chemistry,
- changes in attitude,
- changes in thinking techniques, and
- greater control over thoughts and emotions.
- It can put you in touch with your stressors and anxiety so that you can see them from a more objective viewpoint and thus have more control over them.
One of the best features of mindfulness meditation is that it doesn’t cost anything or require any special equipment. You can do it wherever you are, and whenever you want.
Holistic Services Group offers one-off mindfulness training workshops to teach your employees to meditate, as well as ongoing workplace meditation classes to help your staff build a habit of meditation.