We have all experienced some form of anxiety in our lives, whether we're anxious about a job interview or going on a first date. Yet, for people with an anxiety disorder, this feeling leads to distress and meddles with their ability to live their life. Now, researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada suggest just 10 minutes of practicing mindfulness meditation can reduce repetitive thoughts and mind wandering in anxious people.
"We also found that meditation practice appears to help anxious people to shift their attention from their own internal worries to the present-moment external world, which enables better focus on a task at hand," said Mengran Xu, a researcher and PhD candidate at Waterloo, in a statement.
Mindfulness is a type of meditation that yields protective effects on anxious individuals. It’s defined as "paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgement," according to the researchers. Previous research indicates this technique is a promising antidote for the wandering mind, prompting Xu and his colleagues to to study its impact on a group of highly anxious people.
In the new study, published in Consciousness and Cognition, a total of 82 undergraduate students with anxiety were asked to complete a computer task while experiencing interruptions to gauge the likelihood of mind wandering. We all engage in mind wandering, but for people with anxiety, this can negatively affect their ability to learn, to complete tasks, or even function safely. The participants were placed into two groups: the control group was given an audio story to listen to, and the other group was asked to engage in a short meditation exercise before being reassessed.
The findings revealed mindfulness training has a protective effect on mind wandering in people with anxiety. Meditation helped to prevent mind wandering increasing over time, and reduced the disruption during "off-task" episodes. Moreover, meditation helped to change the focus from the internal to present-moment external world; a technique that can prove to be helpful in anxiety treatment.
"It would be interesting to see what the impacts would be if mindful meditation was practiced by anxious populations more widely" said Xu.
Previous research also supports this finding; eight weeks of meditation can significantly change the stress response in people with anxiety via stress levels and inflammatory markers. Mindfulness meditation is relatively inexpensive and considered a low-stigma treatment that improves resilience to stress. Although stress can be at the root of severe anxiety, meditation can address and treat this anxiety.
Anxiety can manifest itself both physically and emotionally in the body. This can leave us feeling exhausted and desperate for anxiety relief. Aside from mindfulness meditation, there are other techniques that can help reduce repetitive thoughts and mind wandering in just 10 minutes or less, from chewing gum to listening to music.
How to Do Mindfulness Meditation
Find a good spot in your home or apartment, ideally where there isn’t too much clutter and you can find some quiet. Leave the lights on or sit in natural light. You can even sit outside if you like, but choose a place with little distraction.
At the outset, it helps to set an amount of time you’re going to “practice” for. Otherwise, you may obsess about deciding when to stop. If you’re just beginning, it can help to choose a short time, such as five or ten minutes. Eventually you can build up to twice as long, then maybe up to 45 minutes or an hour. Use a kitchen timer or the timer on your phone. Many people do a session in the morning and in the evening, or one or the other. If you feel your life is busy and you have little time, doing some is better than doing none. When you get a little space and time, you can do a bit more.
How to Sit
Here’s a posture practice that can be used as the beginning stage of a period of meditation practice or simply as something to do for a minute, maybe to stabilize yourself and find a moment of relaxation before going back into the fray. If you have injuries or other physical difficulties, you can modify this to suit your situation.
1. Take your seat. Whatever you’re sitting on—a chair, a meditation cushion, a park bench—find a spot that gives you a stable, solid seat, not perching or hanging back.
2. Notice what your legs are doing. If on a cushion on the floor, cross your legs comfortably in front of you. (If you already do some kind of seated yoga posture, go ahead.) If on a chair, it’s good if the bottoms of your feet are touching the floor.
3. Straighten—but don’t stiffen— your upper body. The spine has natural curvature. Let it be there. Your head and shoulders can comfortably rest on top of your vertebrae.
4. Situate your upper arms parallel to your upper body. Then let your hands drop onto the tops of your legs. With your upper arms at your sides, your hands will land in the right spot. Too far forward will make you hunch. Too far back will make you stiff. You’re tuning the strings of your body—not too tight and not too loose.
5. Drop your chin a little and let your gaze fall gently downward. You may let your eyelids lower. If you feel the need, you may lower them completely, but it’s not necessary to close your eyes when meditating. You can simply let what appears before your eyes be there without focusing on it.
6. Be there for a few moments. Relax. Bring your attention to your breath or the sensations in your body.
7. Feel your breath—or some say “follow” it—as it goes out and as it goes in. (Some versions of this practice put more emphasis on the outbreath, and for the inbreath you simply leave a spacious pause.) Either way, draw your attention to the physical sensation of breathing: the air moving through your nose or mouth, the rising and falling of your belly, or your chest. Choose your focal point, and with each breath, you can mentally note “breathing in” and “breathing out.”
8. Inevitably, your attention will leave the breath and wander to other places. Don’t worry. There’s no need to block or eliminate thinking. When you get around to noticing your mind wandering—in a few seconds, a minute, five minutes—just gently return your attention to the breath.
9. Practice pausing before making any physical adjustments, such as moving your body or scratching an itch. With intention, shift at a moment you choose, allowing space between what you experience and what you choose to do.
10. You may find your mind wandering constantly—that’s normal, too. Instead of wrestling with or engaging with those thoughts as much, practice observing without needing to react. Just sit and pay attention. As hard as it is to maintain, that’s all there is. Come back over and over again without judgment or expectation.
11. When you’re ready, gently lift your gaze (if your eyes are closed, open them). Take a moment and notice any sounds in the environment. Notice how your body feels right now. Notice your thoughts and emotions. Pausing for a moment, decide how you’d like to continue on with your day.
That’s it. That’s the practice. It’s often been said that it’s very simple, but it’s not necessarily easy. The work is to just keep doing it. Results will accrue.
other Tips on Relieving Anxiety
These simple things can also be beneficial for momentarily relieving anxiety.
Chewing on a piece of gum may help reduce anxiety and reduce our stress levels almost immediately, but with long-term effects. For example, a 2011 study found people who chewed gum twice a day for 14 days, were more likely to rate their anxiety as significantly less than their counterparts. Moreover, other researchers found chewing gum while completing memory-related tasks led to quicker reaction times and more focus. Anxious people struggle with repetitive thoughts, but chewing gum could act as a buffer to these behaviors.
Drinking herbal tea, specifically kava tea, has been shown to affect brain chemistry in the same way as anti-anxiety drugs. The tea, derived from kava root, has been touted for helping anxious people relax and release their fears. A 2013 study found it could be as effective as current drug treatments, without the risk of dependency and a lessened likelihood for side effects.
Watch A Viral Video
Laughing is a great way to relax and let go of any anxious thoughts in your head. A 2006 study found bouts of laughter leads to an increase in blood flow and boosts immunity. Stress hormones intertwine with anxiety, but laughing continues to decrease anxiety over time via dopamine.
Listen To Music
Sound therapy is known as a popular way to relax and drown out the world via earphones. A 2016 study found listening to the song "Weightless" led to a 65 percent reduction in anxiety, and a 35 percent reduction in usual physiological resting rates in participants who attempted to solve difficult puzzles as quickly as possible while connected to sensors. The song, created by the group Marconi Union, did so in collaboration with therapists to help slow a listener’s heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.