Mindfulness Training for Anxiety: How Does it Work?
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults ages 18 and older — that’s 18.1% of the population every year. The good news? Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, and research continually demonstrates that mindfulness training can be instrumental in alleviating feelings of anxiety.
Unfortunately, only 36.9% of those suffering from anxiety receive treatment. By not seeking help for anxiety, individuals might experience daily discomforts, like being unable to focus at work or school or having a hard time connecting with others to severe conditions, like suffering from depression, physical illness, or substance abuse.
Mindfulness can be practiced anytime, anywhere, with anyone, by only bringing your full attention to the present moment. With mindfulness training, you can learn how to detach from anxious thoughts by practicing awareness of your physical sensations and thought patterns and practicing how to accept discomfort and difficult emotions.
It’s important to note that while mindfulness and meditation are similar, they are not the same. Mindfulness involves paying full attention, noticing, and being present. Meditation often refers to a formal intentional practice, where you are bringing your attention inward toward a single point of focus, such as a mantra (word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation).
Because anxiety often involves ruminating and worrying, mindfulness can be an excellent antidote for bringing your focus back into the present moment. You can create more distance between triggering past, present, or future thoughts.
Anxiety Feels Different For Everyone
Because every person is unique, individuals experience anxiety in body and mind can also vary dramatically. Anxiety has the same effect on our bodies as stress does. It triggers the autonomic nervous system, leading to a spike in releasing the “stress hormones” epinephrine and cortisol.
In the short-term, anxiety can increase your breathing and heart rate so that your brain and body can get more oxygen. This makes sense because evolutionarily if we were to face an intense fight-or-flight situation, we’d need that heightened response to respond to an actual threat or danger.
Yet, suppose the body cannot return to normal functioning after a stressor has passed over the long-term. In that case, these stress hormones released into your body can become harmful to your mental, physical and emotional health. For example, you may experience a disruption in your sleep, a weakened immune system, lower energy levels, or even depression, increased risk of heart disease, and weight gain.
Here are a few common physical feelings of anxiety:
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Quickened breath
- Butterflies in your stomach
- Increased or irregular heartbeat
- Nausea or sweaty palms
Here are a few common emotional feelings of anxiety:
- A sense of dread or fearing the worst
- Ruminating on situations or looping thoughts
- Inability to stop worrying
- Experiencing time as speeding up or slowing down
- Seeking frequent reassurance from others
- Worrying that people are upset with you
- Feeling disconnected from your mind or body
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety becomes a disorder characterized as persistent and excessive worry where individuals lose a sense of rational perspective and expect the worst even when there is no apparent reason for concern.
There are several types of diagnosable anxiety disorders:
- Generalized Anxiety: Worrying about things in everyday life
- Social Anxiety: Worrying about being evaluated negatively in social situations
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): An obsession or compulsion to repeat certain behaviors or rituals
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Develops after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event with symptoms that may present themselves immediately or can be delayed for years.
- Phobias: An overwhelming and persistent fear that’s usually excessive or unrealistic of an object, person, animal, activity, or situation.
- Panic Disorder: The Mayo Clinic describes a panic attack as “a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you’re losing control, having a heart attack, or even dying.”
While anxiety can be both mentally and physically taxing, there are many ways to address it, from medication to meditation. Research has shown that simple mindfulness practices can significantly reduce anxiety and stress.
Mindfulness can help you understand the nature of your anxiety and the thought patterns or behaviors surrounding it so that you can begin to recognize triggers. Once you do so, you can find different ways around these mental patterns to avoid falling into the trap of those thoughts again.
What is Mindfulness Training for Anxiety?
Mindfulness is a type of meditation where you bring all of your awareness to what you are sensing and feeling in the present moment — without any judgment that what you are experiencing is good or bad.
Through various techniques that can include breathwork, visualization or guided imagery, and movement, mindfulness practices can help relax your body and mind, thereby reducing stress and alleviating feelings of anxiety.
More simply, mindfulness is made up of two key components: attention and acceptance.
According to the American Psychological Association, most mindfulness research has focused on two types of interventions:
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a therapeutic intervention that involves weekly group classes and daily mindfulness exercises over eight weeks, focused on yoga and meditation.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), a therapeutic intervention that combines MBSR and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat people with depression.
In clinical trials, mindfulness has shown to help with:
And, because mindfulness training creates opportunities to process thoughts and emotions, meditation has also been shown to:
- Enhance attention
- Support feelings of peace and contentment
How Does Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Training Help?
In a study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine, Dr. Elizabeth Hoge (psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital) found that a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program helped quell anxiety symptoms in people with generalized anxiety disorder, which is frequently focused on hard-to-control worries, poor sleep, and irritability.
Initially developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR techniques have been widely studied because of their simplicity and efficacy in reducing suffering and distress and increasing well-being. People who practice this type of mindfulness training for anxiety cultivate attention skills, develop emotional regulation, and significantly reduce rumination and worry.
Mindfulness practices create a sense of inner calm to explore what is truly underlying your anxiety, stress, or worries. Connecting to a sense of attention enables you to observe root concerns and potentially leads to more profound clarity for what is unfolding before you.
Like a child calling for attention, your thoughts and emotions also need the space to be seen, heard, and expressed. Through the power of observation, you create space for allowing, which can help dissipate any energetic charge behind any feelings that come up.
When it comes to mindfulness training for anxiety, mindfulness practices can be incredibly impactful because of the “acceptance” factor mentioned earlier.
By learning how to be with complicated feelings without judging, analyzing, suppressing, or encouraging them, you’re permitting yourself to acknowledge whatever discomfort you’re going through.
As you learn to trust yourself and the ability to be with feelings of discomfort, rather than aiming to escape or analyze them, this simple act can lead to a substantial shift, where you expand the capacity you have to handle the ups and downs of life.
The act of acceptance can shift the need from controlling external circumstances to understanding how life continues to move and change — and through it all, you do have empowered control of how you respond to the situations brought before you.
By giving yourself ample room for both attention and acceptance, you can also choose how to “respond” rather than “react” to a situation, determining how to be, think and feel, creating an opportunity to step away from patterned thoughts or instinctive behaviors.
How Can You Practice Mindfulness If You Have Anxiety?
If you have anxiety, mindfulness training focused on deepening present-moment awareness can lead to heightened feelings of stress, worry, or overwhelm.
How then do you genuinely practice mindfulness training for anxiety?
You can start by acknowledging that beginning a mindfulness or meditation practice may be hard in the best of circumstances — which is why it’s okay to give yourself compassion that if you are experiencing anxiety, mindfulness training can be even more uncomfortable.
Another tip is to actively “make time” for your practice. You may not ever be able to “find the time,” especially if you anticipate that mindfulness training for anxiety will be uncomfortable. Know that even a few minutes a day of intentional breathing and focus can create a ripple effect of beneficial mind-body results.
Here are four simple mindfulness practices designed especially for anxiety:
Present Moment Sense Awareness
Whatever it is that you’re doing, from getting dressed to sipping coffee to sitting at your laptop, tune into your five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste.
Bring awareness to the present moment — know that it is a tough call, as studies have shown that people spend 46.9% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing.
For each of your five senses, name one thing that you observe.
By connecting to your surroundings through present-moment awareness, especially for the things you repetitively do, you can inhabit your body and your life more deeply, reminding yourself that you are okay in this present moment.
Breathing can calm your nervous system, primarily when focusing on your exhalation, which encourages the parasympathetic response of slowing the heart rate and digestion, leading to slowing the mind.
When you take slow, steady breaths, your brain understands, “All is well.” And, best of all, your breath is with you all of the time, so you can access this tool wherever you are, whenever you’d like. Practice this technique regularly so that you can call upon it during incredibly stressful situations.
Focus your attention on your breath.
Take a deep inhale through your nose for 3 seconds, hold your breath for 2 seconds, then exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds.
If your mind wanders, that’s okay. Bring your attention back to your breath.
Continue this cycle of breath for as long as you’d like.
Take a Mindful Walk
Being in nature, especially being out in the sun, and moving your body while breathing deeply, can help move stuck energy or change your perspective.
Exposure to the sun can also increase the brain’s release of serotonin, a hormone associated with boosting mood and increasing feelings of calm and focus.
With every step you take, you can bring your focus to the movement of your feet, breathing in with one step, breathing out with the other.
Practice Loving Kindness
Often, when we’re feeling anxious, it becomes easy to believe that we are the only person going through this discomfort.
Shifting the focus away from yourself toward others by wishing for someone to be happy – also known as “lovingkindness” – can allow you to start feeling more connected to fellow human beings and remember that we all experience sadness, disappointment, joy, and fear.
You can practice loving kindness silently in your mind by sending well wishes to people you know. You can also do this by sending well wishes to strangers, such as the market’s cashier.
It only takes a few seconds. Notice how you feel afterward.
Practicing Mindfulness for Anxiety
Mindfulness is called a “practice” for a reason. It is designed for you to come back to it again and again. Every little bit can help.
Explore what works for you throughout the day, then develop a sense of consistency around what works best for you. It may be helpful to keep a journal to observe any changes that may happen over time.
It is also helpful to note that mindfulness practices are not a replacement for therapy; they can become part of an overall treatment plan, especially when monitored by a healthcare professional. Please be sure to consult the appropriate resources.
*We cannot understate the importance of working with a doctor and therapist as you recover. None of this content is intended as medical advice.
Speak with your providers to find a plan and strategies that work for you. If you don't have a therapist or provider, give us a call.