Last updated October 26, 2022.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.
Meditation can work as well as common Rx drugs for anxiety, changing your brain and making it less anxiety-prone. Learn the best ways to meditate.
It’s human nature to worry.
Being on the constant lookout for danger kept our ancestors safe and alive.
But in the modern world, a hypervigilant mind does little good.
It causes the fear center of the brain to grow larger and more reactive, leading to a vicious cycle of worry and anxiety.
Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million Americans.
Standard medical treatments for anxiety are anti-anxiety medications, cognitive behavioral therapy, or a combination of both.
Therapy is time-consuming and expensive.
Anti-anxiety medications work fast, but are some of the most addictive substances around and not intended for long-term use.
Meditation may be an alternative, or complementary, answer.
In fact, the latest research shows that meditation works as well as commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medications.
Even if you’ve never meditated before, you can use meditation to train your brain to be less anxious.
How Anxiety and Meditation Change the Brain
Anxiety doesn’t just make you feel bad, it actually changes the structure and function of your brain.
It decreases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain considered the seat of the memory.
Conversely, it increases the size of the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for the fear response, causing you to become even more anxious and fearful.
Stress, fear, and anxiety trigger the release of stress hormones and cause imbalances in neurotransmitters, chemicals that brain cells use to communicate with each other.
It’s been known for thousands of years that meditation can help you relax.
But meditation does much more than that.
Meditation, like anxiety, changes the structure and function of your brain — but for the better.
Regular meditation not only can reduce anxiety symptoms, it also can reverse the damage caused by anxiety.
With the latest neuroimaging techniques, these changes can be tracked and measured.
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Researchers from Johns Hopkins University reviewed 47 meditation trials with over 3,500 participants to determine mindfulness meditation’s most effective uses.
They concluded that the number one use for meditation was anxiety relief.
Other studies support that meditation benefits mental disorders of all kinds, including:
- binge eating disorder
- panic disorder
- social anxiety
Here are some of the powerful ways in which meditation improves the brain and mental well-being.
1. Meditation Breaks Anxious Thought Patterns
A primary way that meditation helps anxiety is by breaking negative thought patterns.
As anyone with anxiety will attest, racing thoughts create a vicious cycle of worry and anxiety.
Breaking the vicious cycle of obsessive, negative thinking is where meditation really shines.
Meditation can reduce rumination, even in those with lifelong mood disorders.
It decreases the tendency to worry and improves control over random unwanted thoughts.
Meditation can alter the way the brain responds to stress.
Any habit is hard to break because of the strong neural pathway that’s created through constant repetition.
And few habits are harder to break than negative patterns of self-talk.
Most of us have around 70,000 thoughts every day and it’s estimated that up to 70% of them are negative.
Fortunately, the brain has an endless capacity to change, a characteristic known as neuroplasticity.
Meditation trains you to view your thoughts differently.
You learn to recognize and stop “mental time travel” — worrying about the future and pondering the past.
Instead of following a worrying thought down the path of all possible negative outcomes, you learn to recognize that thought for what it is — one thought — and then let it go.
Thus, by creating a new thought pattern, you are training your brain to be less anxious.
2. Meditation Balances Brain Chemicals
No one knows for sure what causes anxiety.
Risk factors include basic personality type, emotional trauma, and even genes.
There’s also evidence that anxiety can be caused by an imbalance of brain chemicals brought on by severe or prolonged stress.
A meditation practice can help restore an optimal balance of neurotransmitters.
Meditation increases the level of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter essential for feeling happy and relaxed.
Feeling anxious, easily overstimulated, and overwhelmed are common signs that you might be low in GABA.
Meditation can lift your mood by increasing levels of serotonin, another neurotransmitter vital to happiness.
Meditation also reduces cortisol, the primary stress hormone that, in excess, significantly contributes to anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and memory loss.
3. Meditation Builds a Healthier Brain
Meditation can build a bigger, healthier brain.
The brains of people who regularly meditate show measurable increases in the amount of gray matter, the volume of the hippocampus, and the thickness of the cortex.
Conversely, the amygdala, the region of the brain associated with fear, anxiety, and stress, decreases in size and becomes less reactive.
" The US Marines use mindfulness to reduce overall on-the-job stress, minimize the effects of post-traumatic stress, and improve performance.
Meditation increases blood flow to the brain, improves neural connections between various areas of the brain, and enhances neuroplasticity.
Meditation can even future-proof you against age-related mental decline, including Alzheimer’s disease.
4. Meditation Reduces Brain Inflammation
Cytokines are chemical messengers that regulate your immune response.
Elevated cytokine levels are responsible for chronic inflammation, including inflammation of the brain, and are associated with anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders.
Meditation reduces inflammation, even to the point of altering the expression of pro-inflammatory genes.
You might expect that altering genes would take a long time, but measurable changes can be detected after as few as eight hours of meditation.
Why Mindfulness Meditation Excels at Anxiety Relief
Mindfulness meditation is one of many styles of meditation.
Research finds that it is especially helpful for anxiety and depression, even more so than other forms of meditation.
It’s widely considered the best beginner’s meditation since it’s easy to do, effective, and requires no special training to get started.
It’s the meditation of choice among people who regularly face unusual levels of stress.
Those in high-stress occupations, including Wall Street brokers and Silicon Valley employees, rely on it to avoid burnout and keep their mental edge.
The US Marines use mindfulness to reduce overall on-the-job stress, minimize the effects of post-traumatic stress, and improve performance.
Award-winning ABC news anchor Dan Harris is now an outspoken proponent of the benefits of mindfulness meditation after experiencing a frightening on-the-air anxiety attack.
His meditation practice was instrumental in overcoming anxiety and panic attacks.
If you are skeptical, so was Harris.
He admitted in an interview with Charlie Rose that he was initially turned off by “self-help gurus making pseudoscientific claims.”
But he came to realize that the process of meditating doesn’t have to be complicated; it is just about paying attention to your mind and body.
Getting Started: A Breathing Mindfulness Meditation
Meditation doesn’t have to take a lot of time.
As little as 10 minutes per day is a reasonable goal.
According to Leo Babauta, founder of Zen Habits, even as little as 2 minutes per day is of value since it will help form a meditation habit you can stick with.
Start with a basic breathing mindfulness meditation.
Practiced regularly, it will train your brain to stop jumping around and stay focused on the present.
Basic Breathing Mindfulness Meditation
Sit quietly with your eyes closed.
Breathe normally and simply notice your breath.
Saying to yourself “breathing in, breathing out” can help keep other thoughts at bay.
When you notice a random thought, simply label it as “a thought” and gently bring your attention back to your breath.
Most people new to meditation erroneously believe that if they’ve had thoughts while meditating that they have failed.
But the goal of meditation is not to have no thoughts.
Instead, the objective is to simply notice thoughts when they arise and gently push them aside.
The Benefits of Guided Meditation for Anxiety
If meditation has so much to offer, you might wonder why everyone isn’t doing it.
Meditation is one of those things that falls into the “simple, but not easy” category.
Quieting the mind — sometimes aptly referred to as a “random thought generator” — is not an easy task!
Unfortunately, many people give up on meditation because they can’t quiet their thoughts, they aren’t sure they are doing it right, or they aren’t getting the results they’d hoped for.
But with a guided meditation, you don’t have to go it alone.
You can follow along with an experienced meditation teacher who will guide you into a relaxed, meditative state.
Sources for Guided Meditations to Relieve Anxiety
There are many kinds of guided meditations.
Basically any meditation that is done with the help of a guide, either in person or, more commonly, via an online sound file or digital download, is a guided meditation.
You don’t have to look far to find an array of guided meditations online, many of them free.
University Stress Relief Resources
One surprisingly good source for stress and anxiety relief help is university websites.
Many major universities make stress reduction resources available for their students and anyone else who visits their website.
You’ll find relaxation exercises of all kinds, including guided imagery, brainwave entrainment, autogenic training, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, and more.
A bonus is that most of these are created by trained health care professionals.
Here’s a list of university websites with a mention of some of the meditation resources you’ll find there:
Brigham Young University
Brigham Young University Counseling and Psychological Services offers a good selection of guided meditations of all kinds.
Browse through their breathing, mindfulness, and visualization meditations, as well as their progressive muscle relaxation and self-hypnosis digital downloads, all of which are effective in treating anxiety.
Dartmouth College Student Wellness Center has dozens of meditations that include deep breathing, visualization, guided imagery, and progressive relaxation exercises.
UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center has a selection of meditations that includes breathing and sleep meditations.
Most include a transcript in case you’d like to record them in your own voice.
University of Houston
In the University of Houston Counseling Services student portal, you’ll find visualization and guided imagery meditations.
University of Iowa
University of Iowa has an online Mind/Body Spa with guided relaxation and stress reduction exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, healing and mindfulness meditations, and other relaxation exercises.
University of Illinois
University of Illinois McKinley Health Center offers guided imagery and deep breathing meditations as well as progressive muscle relaxation.
University of Michigan
University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center recommends that cancer patients use guided imagery along with conventional medical treatments to reduce the stress and anxiety that accompany the disease and treatment.
Their research shows that meditation can also improve sleep, ease pain, and reduce nausea and fatigue.
Their guided imagery library is available online for everyone.
Other Sources for Meditations for Anxiety
Udemy is the world’s largest marketplace for online courses.
A quick search for “guided meditation for anxiety” reveals thousands of results.
Most are in the $15 range and many are free.
Udemy offers an excellent selection of complete meditation courses.
Some are very specific, such as overcoming performance anxiety or meditations for specific health conditions.
You can find dozens of guided meditations for anxiety on the music streaming service Spotify.
Once you create an account, enter the term guided meditation anxiety in the search box.
You’ll find guided meditations specifically for anxiety and stress relief.
Binaural Beats Meditation
Binaural beats is a sound technology that can help quiet the mind quickly by inducing the same brainwave state experienced during meditation.
At Binaural Beats Meditation, you’ll find a wide selection of binaural beats meditations, including one created specifically to reduce anxiety.
You can also sign up for a set of four free relaxation downloads which includes one for sleep and one for mindfulness meditation.
Meditation Apps for Anxiety
InsightTimer is the #1 free meditation app for both Android and iOS.
This app offers thousands of free meditations presented by some of the world’s best meditation teachers, including Jack Kornfield, Ram Dass, and Thich Nhat Hanh.
You can access meditations by category, including their Stress & Anxiety category.
The popular app Headspace has meditations specifically for stress and anxiety.
The Mindfulness App has over 400 guided meditations by notable meditation teachers, including Jack Kornfield, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Eckhart Tolle, and Sharon Salzberg.
Moving Meditations for Severe Anxiety
Unfortunately, some people find that meditation makes their anxiety worse.
But that doesn’t mean that you should give up on meditation.
Consider moving meditations instead.
One of simplest, most accessible moving meditations is mindful walking.
For a unique meditation experience, try walking a labyrinth.
There are a surprising number of labyrinths open to the public.
You can find a labyrinth near you at LabyrinthLocator.com.
There are also structured moving meditation practices — tai chi, qi gong, yoga, or any of the martial arts.
Note that you can train yourself to be mindful when doing any activity.
(Recall the classic “wax on, wax off” scene in the movie Karate Kid where waxing a car becomes a mindfulness meditation.)
You can mindfully eat, make tea, do the dishes, or brush your teeth.
Talking to Your Doctor About Meditation and Anxiety
There’s overwhelming evidence that meditation is an excellent tool for reducing anxiety.
But don’t expect your doctor to write you a prescription for meditation anytime soon.
If you currently take any medication for your anxiety, do not stop taking it before talking to your doctor.
Meditation will not take the place of your medication immediately.
However, you may find that you are able to take less of it over time as the effects of your meditation practice kick in.
If reducing or eliminating your anti-anxiety medication is your goal, create a reasonable tapering plan with your doctor.
Meditation for Anxiety: Take the Next Step
The evidence is overwhelming — meditation is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety.
It does more than temporarily help you relax.
It works on a deep level by changing the function and structure of your brain.
Meditation actually reprograms your brain to be less anxious.
Mindfulness meditation requires no special training and can bring noticeable anxiety relief in as little as 10 minutes a day.
Learning to quiet your mind can be challenging, but using guided meditations can make it easier.
Guided meditations let you tap into the wisdom and expertise of the world’s best meditation teachers, sometimes for free.
If you happen to feel more anxious when you meditate, switch to a moving meditation.
There are endless meditation options available online, so you can easily experiment to find which ones work for you.
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