Meditation, or dhyana, is calming the mind in the hopes of reaching a state of awareness and stillness. It can allow us to relax and connect with our spirituality. Using meditation to combat stress and anxiety lead me away from being a therapist and into teaching yoga. Today, I see more clearly how therapy and yoga techniques, like meditation, can used together to combat anxiety. Meditation actually changes the way the body and brain function. It can allows us to sweat less, breathe slower, lower blood pressure, and influence our neurological chemistry.
By meditating, we can alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety by intentionally using the breath and mindfulness to create acceptance and awareness.
Breathe In, Breathe Out
Perhaps the most powerful tool we have in meditation is our breath. Research by Bidgoli et al. (2016), shows that teaching pranayama to patients with anxiety is an effective treatment. However, when we're stressed, remembering complicated pranayama is not as easy as a simple breathing meditation. A simple one I have taught to clients to deal with stress is called square breathing. This is done by simple counting as you inhale, hold the breath, exhale, and hold the breath again. Each step is done with a count of four. This can be great in meditation as you can also visualize a square for added focus. If this is too much, it can be done without the holds and by simply counting your breaths. You could even repeat “I am breathing in, I am breathing out” mentally as you slow your breathing and focus on the activity. Breathing is one of the most effective ways to control stress and anxiety. Many people are breathing inefficiently, using only their chest to breathe rapidly, and therefore not receiving enough oxygen. This way of breathing actually perpetuates anxiety and stress, creating a negative feedback loop; our shallow breath causes our nervous system to be more prone to stress and when stressful things occur our reaction is to tense and breathe shallow and rapidly. Meditation allows for a bidirectional positive effect between meditation and stress or symptoms of anxiety. We can use meditation to become aware of our breathing patterns and use this knowledge in our everyday lives. When we notice our breathing has become shallow throughout the day, we can stop and take intentional slow, deep breaths that fill our bellies. The more we practice this in meditation, the more it will come naturally to us throughout our lives. (Learn more about how to control your breath in Breathe Easy With These 5 Yogic Breathing Exercises.)
Observance and Acceptance
Meditation also allows us to use skills that are taught in mindfulness-based and acceptance-based therapies. As a therapist, I found that elements from a certain type of therapy, called dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), were extremely effective in working with a range of mental difficulties, including anxiety, because of its incorporation of mindfulness and Buddhism roots. Within mindfulness, we find nonjudgmental awareness and radical acceptance of our thoughts and emotions. By sitting in meditation and practising mindfulness, you can practice observing your thoughts and emotions without judgment or evaluation. You can also find relief in radically accepting the current state of anxiety you may find yourself in rather than resisting it. Here you can also meditate with mantras, affirmations or prayers to recognize your anxiety or stressors. Giving the mind something to focus on can help to clear the rapid thoughts that typically occur during times of anxiousness or stress. You may want to say to yourself, “I honor my anxiety and accept what it has to show me,” to bring acceptance to your current state. By accepting your reality, you reduce the suffering of your experience. Acceptance does not mean that you approve of your circumstances, but simply that you acknowledge its existence as your present reality.
Awareness of Self
Awareness comes with meditation. As you sit and observe your thoughts, many truths come to the surface of our consciousness. Meditation is often where we face our true selves. From this, you can identify areas of your life that may need attention and methods to address them. For example, you may find that you actually need to journal to get some of your thoughts out in order to be able to sit in meditation. You may notice memories and thoughts from the past surfacing, and find relief in the self-reflection that occurs. Perhaps you notice that your anxiety and stress has reached a point that you want the extra support of a therapist or mental health coach. Sometimes you observe mental tendencies that do not serve your levels of stress and anxiety, such as procrastination, perfectionism, and self-criticism. Through meditation, you are creating the stillness needed for you to identify the work that needs to be done without the urgency and irrationality that often comes with stress and anxiety. A regular meditation practice allows for the mind to have the opportunity to sort itself out from a calm place and to make healthier choices. (For more information on meditation read our 5 Simple Rules to Meditation.)
Free Relief Available 24/7
Meditation allows us to observe, accept, and, subsequently, change the thoughts that cause us to react negatively to situations with stress and anxiety. It allows us to use mindfulness to connect with the present moment when we may be ruminating on thoughts about the past or future. It also allows us to notice and control our breath, thus calming our nervous system, reducing cortisol levels and balancing our neurotransmitters, like GABA, serotonin and dopamine, that contribute to our sense of anxiety and mood. Meditation is one of the best and most easily accessible tool we can use to calm stress and anxiety, bringing us both psychological and physiological relief.