How to Meditate to Calm Anxiety (and why you should)
A regular meditation practice can rewire your brain to help calm anxiety and find greater peace of mind. Below is a step-by-step guide to get you started, even if you’ve never tried before.
Why should you meditate?
Our brain’s job is to keep us safe, not to make us happy. So, anxiety is the result of our brain being on the constant lookout for potential dangers. When you're anxious, you tend to get caught in negative thoughts that repeat over and over. These may be worst case scenarios, worries about the future, or endless"What ifs?"
In this context, the purpose of meditation is not to clear your mind. The purpose of meditation is to practice coming out of your anxious thoughts and into the present moment. Our negative thought patterns represent well-worn neural pathways in our brain. During meditation, we practice coming out of this loop of anxious thoughts, over and over and over again. By doing this, we create a new neural pathway. The path out of anxiety.
10 Minutes a Day is Enough to Change Your Brain
Meditation is a lot like exercise for your brain. Strengthening a new neural pathway is like strengthening a muscle. It takes consistent practice. Just like you can’t strengthen your biceps by reading about exercise, you can’t change your brain by reading about meditation. And you can’t just go the gym once and expect results. In order to retrain your brain, you have to keep it up. Over time, through practicing meditation, it will become easier for your mind to come out of the loop of anxious thoughts. You can start to rewire your brain for greater peace of mind. Research shows that 10 minutes a day is enough to change your brain.
Step-by-Step Guide to Start Meditating Now
Step 1: Choose an anchor.
In meditation your anchor is your focus. Your job in meditation is to keep your attention on your anchor. Each time you notice your mind has wandered, you simply bring your attention back to your anchor. That’s it.
Typically, the first anchor we learn to use is the breath. This is because your breath is always here. It’s always available to you as a connection to the present moment. Some options for anchors:
The sounds around you right now
A mantra such as, “Om” or “I am loving awareness”
A positive intention such as “gratitude” or “joy”
Step 2: Set a timer.
Try starting with just 2 or 3 minutes. Work up to 10 minutes. Research shows that 10 minutes a day is enough to change your brain. You can use a meditation app such as Insight Timer that will give you a nice bell or gong sound.
Step 3: Get comfortable.
Sit in a comfortable chair with your back straight, head forward, and your hands loosely in your lap. Close your eyes or let your gaze fall softly down in front of you. Take a deep breath to start if you like. Then let your breath be slow and natural without trying to control or change it.
Step 4: Focus on your anchor.
Bring your attention to your anchor. For example, try using your breath. Simply observe your breath going in and out. If you like, you can try focusing on your breath at the tip of the nose, noticing the air is cooler as you inhale and warmer as you exhale. Or you can try focusing on your breath in your belly or your chest, feeling the rise and fall.
If you want to try using sounds as your anchor, start by noticing the sound of your breath. Then bring an attitude of acceptance and receptivity to noticing the sounds around you. Notice that if you're listening to sounds around you, you're focused on the present. You can't hear sounds from the past or the future.
Step 5: Come back to your anchor over and over and over.
Until the timer rings, your job is simply to refocus your attention on your anchor each time you notice your mind has wandered. Your mind will wander many, many, many times. That’s ok. That’s normal. Your job is to notice when your mind has wandered, and gently and patiently let the thought go and come back to your anchor. Each time you notice your mind has wandered, you can tell yourself, “This is just a thought. I don’t have to keep following this thought like I normally would.” And letting the thought simply drift by, you can instead return your attention to your breath.
The Pathway out of Anxiety
This is a simple practice, but a powerful tool for your mind. Each time you tell yourself, “This is just a thought,” it’s like doing a rep at the gym. You are strengthening a new neural pathway out of anxious thoughts, and into the present moment. At first, this pathway is a narrow footpath compared to the superhighway of habitual anxious thoughts. But each time you meditate, you make the path stronger. You’re strengthening your mind’s ability to come out of the loop of negative thoughts. You're awakening from being lost in your thoughts. You’re practicing not reacting to anxious thoughts, giving them less power. You are practicing seeing your anxious thought as just thoughts, rather than as something real, true, or important that you need to respond to right now. With practice, this ability seeps into the rest of your life so that you start to feel less anxious and experience greater peace of mind.
Try Guided Meditation Now
Sometimes meditation is easier when you have a voice to walk you through it. Go to my Guided Meditations page and download Letting Go of Thoughts to practice this meditation. Then try using Sounds as an anchor with the Sounds Meditation. See which anchor works best for you. Keep it up a few minutes per day, and you'll start to see your mind become calmer.
Meditation can help calm anxiety. Learn more about getting to the roots of anxiety with EMDR therapy.