Almost one billion people worldwide suffer from anxiety and other mental health issues, according to the World Health Organization. I have my own relationship with anxiety and stress so I can say I'm part of this statistic. Research shows that, in fact, it’s getting worse: the number of people with anxiety went up by more than 25 per cent in the first year after the COVID-19 pandemic. We live in the VUCA world - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous - with its endless supply of the new stressors, and increasing pressure.
Sometimes it's hard to pinpoint what causes the anxiety, everything may seem to be alright on the surface yet one wakes up in the middle of the night in cold sweat and racing heart, a common side effect. It can be attributed to both external and internal factors, including stress from work or school, family dynamics, financial worries, the state of current affairs in the world, lack of sleep, information overload due to technology and even genetics. In addition to these external influences, there has been an increase in internal pressure from high expectations we constantly put on ourselves leading to elevated tension we tend to internalize, store and accumulate in our bodies.
Ever experienced a panic attack? According to physiologists, this is one of the ways how our bodies get rid of too much anxiety build up on the inside, like a pressure relief vault.
The good news is that there are specific steps and techniques you can take to manage your anxiety levels before they become overwhelming. These may include lifestyle modifications (such as getting enough sleep and limiting screen time), mindfulness practices (like observing the sensations in the body) and relaxation techniques (like yoga nidra or deep breathing exercises).
Neurosmart founder Dr. Melis Yilmaz Balban mentions these top rated science-backed tools to mitigate stress and improve anxiety in her workshop:
- Breathing techniques
- Mindfulness meditation
- Mindset Interventions
- Physical Training
How anxiety and stress reaction work
Let's dive deeper into the mechanisms of anxiety at the neurobiological level to better understand the neuroscience of stress. What you are aware of, has less control over you. When we were cavemen, anxiety was crucial because we were constantly in danger. In such circumstances, taking decisive action might mean the difference between life and death. These existential dangers are much less common in modern times, but that doesn't mean our lives are less stressful. This initial survival response can be triggered by everyday pressures, even if unnecessary.
The fight-or-flight response is the body's adaptive response to danger like a defense mechanism. It increases our metabolic rate and triggers the production of enzymes, and hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Because of this, our bodies and minds undergo various modifications to prepare us to fight, freeze, or run from the threat.
What happens in the brain and body when we experience anxiety
According to Dr. Balban, "Theory says that our nervous system is wired to select our responses to threats based on the level of perceived threat. The word perceived is very important here because we often cannot control how high the threat is, but we can control how high we perceive it." And how we perceive it will directly influence our choice of action. It is the perceived thread intensity not the actual threat intensity what matters to the brain. Our system goes through these three main phases: Perception → Evaluation → Action (Reaction or Response).
Anxiety is more than a mental state; it also manifests in the body and the brain. When we come in contact with any external stimuli, the information gets sent to the Cortical center (Prefrontal Cortex) to perceive and process an external or internal event: this is the perception phase - what just happened. Any event remains neutral until we label it in any way: potentially dangerous, stressful, unpleasant or pleasant.
If something is seen as a danger or stressor, our brains respond by increasing activity in the Amygdala, which is primarily involved in emotional processing. It largely influences how we relate to the situation: this is the evaluation phase - how I feel about what just happened. When we feel anxious, it’s our Amygdala talking.
Hypothalamus, the brain's control center, acts like a “traffic light" that gives either green or red light after the Amygdala sets off the alarm: this is the action phase - what do I do about what just happened. If we go the automatic reactive “flight or fight” route, the Amygdala takes the stage and Hypothalamus carries it out by sending a message to your adrenal glands to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to protect from perceived harm. But if there’s no actual physical harm involved in a situation, we don’t need to run away from a tiger and we are basically physically okay, we are still left with elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure disrupting our normal functioning, which may impact our physical and mental health in the long run.
Image source: Medium
Does meditation help with anxiety?
Anxiety can have a significant effect on many of us. Whether its tension tied to an upcoming performance or generalized emotions of uneasiness, we all experience them from time to time. Learning to control them is crucial to leading a healthy and fulfilling life. Regaining equilibrium through meditation is one approach, but is it effective in reducing anxiety?
The quick answer is "yes." In the recent clinical trials led by researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center, mindfulness meditation proved to be as effective at reducing anxiety as Lexapro, a commonly prescribed antidepressant. During the eight-week study, over a hundred participants with anxiety disorders meditated for 45 minutes daily using breath awareness, body scanning and other MBSR mindfulness meditation techniques. People who meditated, got the same results as those who took a pill daily, without the common side effects of antidepressant drugs, the study found.
Conscious awareness, a skill we develop when we meditate, has been shown to have positive psychological effects, including the reduction of stress and anxiety, the alleviation of muscle and joint tension, the quieting of a racing mind full of worries and thoughts, and the gaining of perspective amid apparent chaos.
Suppose you regularly combine yoga poses meant to still the body/mind complex with attentive breathing exercises (also known as Pranayama). In that case, you may discover that you feel both calmer and more energized after each session.
When we meditate, we train our brain to allow for spaciousness where we don’t overthink or worry. This way we can interrupt the automatic stress reaction cycle and literally rewire our brains to respond in a healthier way. There is clear evidence to support the claim that incorporating mindfulness practices into one's daily routine helps not just cope but rather nurture freedom away from any form of distress.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Can meditation make my anxiety worse?
Since ancient times, meditators have turned to this thousand-year-old technique to calm the mind. In recent years, it has grown in popularity as a means of dealing with stress and anxiety. But can meditation make anxiety worse?
Meditation is definitely not a cure all or quick fix. The response to this question depends on the person's meditation expertise and general psychological well-being. While regular meditation practice may be helpful for some, for others, it might make things more intense if it triggers past traumas.
As writer and trauma specialist David Treleaven puts it in his book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, “While meditation might appear to be a safe and innocuous practice, it can thrust trauma survivors directly into the heart of wounds that require more than mindful awareness to heal.”
Mindfulness-based techniques, such as meditation, can help decrease stress and anxiety when practiced appropriately by "enhancing present-moment awareness, increase self-compassion, and strengthening a person’s ability to self-regulate – all important skills that support trauma recovery,” as Treleaven wrote. But that doesn’t mean we can necessarily leap straight in and expect mindfulness to make everything better.
If we don't take the necessary measures when using these techniques, such as having reasonable expectations about what they will achieve, we could wind up feeling more overwhelmed than before we started meditating. Furthermore, people with serious anxiety and trauma should consult with a therapist before trying new techniques.
Finally, it is important to remember that everyone responds differently to different treatments; therefore, it is best to proceed with caution when trying new methods of anxiety management. Finding a trained mindfulness coach or meditation teacher is a great way to explore different modalities and find what works best for you in a safer, more trauma-informed fashion. Here are some of my favorite techniques for curbing anxiety that I have tested and tried over the years.
Best meditation and mindfulness techniques for anxiety
- Breathing Meditation
- Body Scan Meditation
- Loving Kindness Meditation
- EFT Tapping Technique
- Sound Bath for Anxiety
- Yoga Nidra Meditation
- Meditative Shower
- 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique
What is a breath meditation?
Also known as mindfulness of the breath, this ancient mindfulness practice involves simply focusing on the in and out movements of one's breath. Paying attention to your inhale and exhale helps you become more mindful of the current moment and less attached to your thoughts.
This form of meditation has been utilized for ages by many different civilizations as a means to achieve mental calm and focus. Yogananda, the Father of Yoga in the West, who introduced millions to meditation and Kriya yoga, mentions breath as a subtle link that connects body and soul in his "Autobiography of a Yogi."
A new study conducted by Dr. Balban, neuroscientists Andrew Huberman and David Spiegel at Stanford compared three different types of breathing techniques: inhale-focused (longer inhale), exhale-focused (longer exhale) and box breathing, which is inhale equals exhale with breath holds in between each. The study found that exhale-focused breath meditation was superior and the most effective out of the three in terms of reducing anxiety.
Based on the study results, "people who did five minutes of exhale-focus breathing every day showed a reduction in their baseline respiration rate after 3 weeks, which didn't happen with any other groups."
This is a very useful science-based tool to lower anxiety that can be practiced pretty much anytime, even in the middle of a call. If you do it consistently, your baseline respiratory rate will decrease and anxiety levels will cool down with it. This is just how our brains are wired, Dr. Balban explains, you are lowering carbon dioxide directly in your bloodstream, which is sensed by your brain, which in response curbs anxiety circuitry - fast.
Interestingly enough, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which compiled the wisdom and major principles of yoga and breathwork (pranayama) over two thousand years ago, also suggest extended exhalation breathing technique for calming the mind.
Yoga Sutra 1.34 - prachchhardana vidharanabhyam va pranayama
When we find the symptoms of interruptions, the practice of breathing exercises involving extended exhalation might be helpful. (translation by Desikachar)
How to practice Exhale-focused breathing technique
- Find a comfortable, stable position sitting, lying down or even standing, depending on your circumstances
- Keep your eyes closed or open with a soft gaze looking down
- Two short inhales through the nose
- One long exhale through the mouth
- Continue for 5 minutes
- Practice daily to take back control of your stress response
Watch the video of Dr. Huberman describing the protocol:
You may also like to try these breathing meditations:
- Mindful Breathing Meditation with Bob Stahl, MBSR teacher - 15 minutes
- Mindfulness of the Breath Meditation with Meditate Mate - 13 minutes
Body Scan Meditation
The practice of body scan meditation is a potent form of mindfulness that can enhance the awareness of your physical, emotional and mental states. It entails paying attention to and accepting whatever sensations or emotions may arise from various parts of the body. This mode of meditation greatly aids the practice of self-compassion and acceptance.
How to do a Body Scan Meditation
You can practice body scan meditation in both a self-guided or teacher-led fashion. Here's an example of a self-guided meditation practice:
- The first step in body scan meditation is finding a comfortable position, lying down, or sitting upright with closed eyes.
- Start by focusing on your breathing, paying attention to how it feels to inhale and exhale through the nose naturally, without changing anything.
- Once you've settled in and found your groove, begin a slow, methodical scan of your entire body, beginning with your feet and ending with the top of the head or vise versa. Personally, I like to start at the top of the head and work my way down to the toes and soles of the feet.
- As you explore each part, pay attention to any sensations that may come up for you: pleasant (warmth, vibrations), unpleasant (pain, tension) or neutral.
- Recognize these feelings for what they are, but don't linger on them; instead, treat them as a neutral object to be observed and moved past before continuing on to the next body part.
- Remember to attend to yourself in a kind and friendly way as you continue to move your attention through each and every little part, simply observing and becoming aware of what your internal weather is like today (feeling stormy, anyone?)
- At the end of the practice, rest your awareness on the natural breath for a few minutes, and slowly bring yourself back.
- Don't forget to give yourself gratitude for taking the time to improve your well-being.
When we practice body scan meditation regularly, we may see patterns within our bodies, such as how we hold tension in specific areas (like our shoulders and neck muscles) when we're nervous and release that tension when we're relaxed. It might be helpful to have a deeper understanding of these subtle shifts within ourselves better to handle the ups and downs of life's emotions.
3 Guided Body Scan Meditations to try online:
- Mindfulness of the Body meditation for tension release with Manoj Dias - 9 min
- Seated body scan meditation: ease anxiety - 6 min
- Body scan relaxation with Andrew Johnson- 8 min
Loving Kindness Meditation
"The only cure for fear is love," Julia Cameron wrote in The Artist's way. Loving Kindness Meditation or Metta in the Pali language, the language of the Buddha, is a 2500-year-old practice for the heart and one of the best antidotes for anxiety. With consistent practice, Loving-Kindness Meditation can be a life-changing force for increasing one's capacity for empathy, and compassion. Furthermore, it can gradually replace the feeling of worry, unease and fear with a grounded sense of acceptance and love within oneself.
Affirmations like "May I be happy, may I be well, may I live with ease" are repeated while the practitioner concentrates on the breath in this form of meditation. This meditation is a beautiful heart opener that helps cultivate deeper appreciation and acceptance for ourselves and those around us.
While it can literally make you feel in love with life and self, giving yourself compassion may seem difficult at first for some. But with regular practice it becomes more natural to give and receive Metta and access to these loving-kindness states in regular life. It enables us to see how our thoughts influence our feelings and actions and to make deliberate decisions about how we wish to express ourselves. By cultivating a heart-centered practice daily, we may foster an inner climate where serenity, joy, belonging, and health can flourish.
3 Guided Loving Kindness meditations to try on YouTube:
- Loving Kindness Meditation with Meditate Mate - 15 min
- Beacon of Love Meditation with Jack Kornfield - 25 min
- Metta Meditation with Manoj Dias - 15 min
EFT Tapping Technique
The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) method has been clinically proven to manage stress, reduce cortisol levels and improve anxiety. It's based on the principles of acupressure and meridian energy work, which have been practiced in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. Sometimes referred to as psychological acupressure, it also combines elements of neuroscience and psychology to disrupt the energy of looping thoughts and beliefs.
The basic idea behind this technique is simple. By gently tapping specific points on your body with your fingertips, you can activate particular energy pathways or "meridians" that are believed to carry healing energies throughout the body. This helps restore balance and harmony within yourself, so you feel better emotionally and physically.
Photo credit: ur.life wellness
The process itself involves lightly tapping five different spots on each hand—the karate chop point (on the outside edge of either hand), eyebrow point (at the beginning of either eyebrow), side of eye point (just below either eye socket), under nose point (directly beneath your nose) and chin point (in between lower lip & chin).
You then repeat a positive affirmation while focusing on any particular issue or emotion you want to address as you tap each spot three times.
For example, suppose you wanted to use this technique to reduce anxiety before an important meeting at work. In that case, I might say something like, "I release worries and stress, and find peace in this moment" as I tap each spot three times from left to right across both hands.
Take 60 seconds to tap along with @alexortner.ts to calm your body and mind:
Sound Bath for Anxiety
A sound bath is a form of meditation that utilizes sound to help us step into a deeper state of relaxation. Natalie Valle, a certified sound therapy practitioner, explains that the methods and frequencies used in sound baths through a process called entrainment can actually influence our brain waves to go from an active state to a more relaxed state helping us let go of anxious feelings.
It is a full body meditative experience where people lie down and immerse in the sounds and vibrations of various music instruments, such as signing bowls, gongs or even cello.
The benefits of sound bath meditation are numerous; it can help reduce stress levels, improve sleep quality, boost creativity, increase focus and concentration, enhance self-awareness, and promote emotional healing and spiritual growth. Sound baths also provide an opportunity for physical rejuvenation by stimulating the body's natural healing processes through vibrations created by the instruments used during the session.
To get the most out of your sound bath experience, finding a comfortable position where you can relax without distraction from outside noise or movement is essential. Once settled in this position, take some time to close your eyes and become aware of your breath before beginning with the actual practice itself.
During each session, allow yourself to surrender entirely to whatever sensations arise within you – whether physical or mental – without judgment or expectation until eventually reaching a place beyond thought where all sense of separation between oneself and one's environment disappears entirely.
When done correctly, sound bath meditations can have profound effects on our mind and body, so if you're looking for something new, give sound bath a try, for example, this Anxiety relief sound bath on YouTube.
According to Anxiety.org, the Root chakra (located in the tail bone) regulates the sense of security, survival, and instinct. Bringing this chakra back to balance may help reduce anxiety levels and make you feel more grounded. Here's a 10-minute Sound Bath that focuses on the Root Chakra:
Yoga Nidra or Yogic Sleep Meditation
Yoga Nidra is similar to the body scan meditation, the main difference is that Yoga Nidra focuses on complete and total relaxation and is practiced lying down in shavasana pose whereas body scan is usually done in a sitted position and aims to develop awareness of the body while remaining awake and alert.
The benefits of Yoga Nidra are numerous; it can reduce stress levels, improve sleep quality, boost creativity, increase focus and concentration, enhance self-awareness, deepen spiritual connection, and much more.
When practicing Yoga Nidra, you will be lying in a comfortable position while listening to a guided audio track or instructor’s voice as they guide you through various stages of relaxation. During this process, your body will become deeply relaxed but remain conscious so that you can take advantage of the healing effects on both your physical and mental health.
One great thing about Yoga Nidra is that anyone can do it regardless of age or fitness level – all that’s required is sometimes set aside each day (or even once per week) where you can lie down undisturbed for 10-20 minutes at least twice per week. This simple yet powerful practice could be what you need when life feels overwhelming.
3 versions of Yoga Nidra to help with anxiety
- Yoga Nidra: Relax & Reset Your Energy with Hilary Jackendoff - 18 min
- Yoga Nidra with Kamini Desai - Deep Relaxation & Ease - 26 min
- A science-backed Non Sleep Deep Rest Yoga Nidra with Meditate Mate - 15 min
Taking a shower can be more than just an everyday chore – it can also be a form of meditation. A meditative shower allows you to relax, clear your mind, and focus on the present moment. It's about taking time and allowing yourself to "be" in the moment without distractions or worries from outside influences.
The first step towards having a successful meditative shower experience is setting up your environment. Make sure your bathroom is comfortable and inviting; light some candles or incense if desired, play calming music (or no music at all), and make sure there are no other sources of noise, such as TVs or radios playing in the background. Once everything is set up properly, it's time to start getting ready for your shower!
Begin by slowly undressing until you're completely naked before stepping into the warm water. As soon as you get under the spray of water, let go of all thoughts running through your head - this will help create space for mindfulness during this practice. Focus on how each drop feels against your skin while breathing deeply with intention - inhaling positivity and exhaling stress away from body & soul alike.
Allow yourself to become fully immersed in every sensation around you: The warmth of the water cascading down over you, its texture against different parts of your body, the smell emanating from whatever soap, shampoo, conditioner combination you use, and so forth.
Once finished with washing, take extra care when drying off - feel each movement like never before, savoring every second spent here. Afterward, putting on fresh clothes helps shift our mindset even further - feeling clean inside out makes us appreciate our bodies better too! This simple act has been known to increase self-esteem levels significantly.
Meditative Showers offer many benefits beyond physical hygiene; they provide mental clarity, relaxation and improved moods, among others. So next time, instead of rushing through bathtime, why not try slowing down? You won't regret it! Try this guided shower meditation for a full sensory experience.
The 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique
The 5-4-3-2-1 is an effective technique that can help when experiencing a panic attack or high anxiety levels.
The idea behind this practice is to bring your attention back into the present moment by focusing on five senses: vision, touch, hearing, taste and smell. In this practice you will name five things you can see, four things you can feel, three sounds you hear, two things to can smell, and one thing that you can taste. This helps ground us in the present moment and gives our minds something else to focus on other than whatever was causing us distress.
Photo credit: teacherlifecoach.com
Let’s break down each step:
- Five things you can see – Take a few moments to look around your environment and name five objects or items within view. It could be anything from furniture pieces to plants or even just colors! The goal here is to observe what’s around without judgment or attachment.
- Four Things you can feel – Take some time to notice any physical sensations in your body, such as pressure points where clothing touches the skin, temperature changes between different body parts, etc. Again, try not to attach any emotion but acknowledge these feelings objectively as an observer would.
- Three sounds that you hear – Listen carefully for nearby background noises, such as birds chirping outside, cars driving past, etc. Once again, don’t judge them; instead, allow yourself to become aware of their presence without attaching meaning to them.
- Two smells in the air – Notice if any scents are lingering in the room, whether they come from food cooking nearby or perhaps fragrances used throughout the house/office space etc. Pay attention without trying too hard; let those aromas drift through your awareness naturally until they fade away after a while.
- One thing that you can taste - Finally, think about something tasty that brings pleasure, e.g., chocolate ice cream (or whatever tickles your fancy). Let its flavor linger inside the mouth before swallowing it, slowly savoring every last bit before letting go completely once more.
By taking part in this exercise regularly, we permit ourselves to pause amidst all chaos going on internally and externally, allowing us to regain control over our emotions, thus helping reduce overall stress levels significantly over time. Practice the 5-4-3-2-1 technique with this 4-minute video:
There are quite a few mindfulness-based methods for coping with anxiety and stress. Ancient wisdom has known for centuries what modern science has now proved with research: meditation has positive lasting effect on anxiety, sans the pills. We can cultivate inner peace in an array of different ways. And the beauty of meditation is some forms will resonate with some people. And other forms will resonate differently with other people. This is an invitation to explore and find what works best for you. Let us know in the comments which type is your favorite. If you found a technique that is not listed in the article, please share in the comments for others to try!
And finally, this meditation for anxiety I recently liked: