Mindfulness meditation not only helps anxiety and stress, but actually changes the structure and function of the brain to make it healthier and work better.
It’s in our 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 you little good.
It can cause the fear center of your brain, the amygdala, to grow larger and more reactive leading to a vicious cycle of more stress, worry, and anxiety.
Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million Americans. (1)
Standard medical treatments for anxiety are medications, cognitive behavioral therapy, or a combination of both.
Therapy is time-consuming and expensive.
Medications can have unwanted side effects and don’t work for everyone.
If you feel like your brain is running on a hamster wheel of “what ifs” and worries, you’ve probably wondered if there was a drug-free solution.
The answer may be as simple as mindfulness meditation.
Even if you’ve never meditated before, you can start retraining your brain to be less anxious starting today.
Why Use Mindfulness Meditation for Anxiety?
Mindfulness meditation is one of many styles of meditation.
Research finds it especially helpful for anxiety, even more so than other forms of meditation. (2)
It’s widely considered the best beginner’s meditation since it’s easy, effective, and requires no special training to get started.
It’s the meditation of choice among people who regularly face unusual levels of stress.
The U.S. Marines use mindfulness to reduce overall on-the-job stress, minimize the effects of post-traumatic stress, and improve performance. (5)
ABC news anchor Dan Harris is now an outspoken proponent of the benefits of mindfulness meditation after experiencing a horrifying on-the-air anxiety attack. (6)
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His meditation practice was instrumental in overcoming anxiety and panic attacks.
But he didn’t always feel that way.
He was extremely skeptical and resisted meditating for a long time.
He admitted in an interview with Charlie Rose that he was initially turned off by “self-help gurus making pseudoscientific claims.”
You may feel the same way.
So let’s look at what scientific research has uncovered about this technique and what it can do for anxiety.
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How Mindfulness Changes Your Brain
It’s been known for thousands of years that mindfulness, like all kinds of meditation, can help you relax.
But mindfulness does much more than that — it actually changes the structure and function of your brain.
With the latest neuroimaging techniques, these changes can now be tracked and measured.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University sifted through over 18,000 mindfulness meditation studies and concluded that its best use was for anxiety, depression, and pain management. (7)
Here are some of the amazing ways mindfulness meditation improves your brain and mental well-being.
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Mindfulness Meditation Rewires the Anxious Brain
Repeated studies have demonstrated that meditation can rewire how the brain responds to stress. (11)
Any habit is easy to do (and hard to stop doing) because you have created a strong neural pathway for that activity.
The same holds true for your patterns of self-talk and the 50,000 or so thoughts you have every day.
However, your brain has an endless capacity to change, known as brain plasticity.
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Regularly practicing mindfulness meditation actually rewires your brain to be more focused. (12)
Mindfulness trains you to view your thoughts differently.
You learn to recognize and stop “mental time travel” — worrying about the future and ruminating about the past.
Instead of following a worrying thought down the path of all possible negative outcomes, you learn to recognize it for what it is — one thought — and then let it go.
This trains your brain to be less anxious.
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Mindfulness Balances Brain Chemicals
A mindfulness practice changes your levels of brain chemicals.
It increases levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter essential for feeling happy and relaxed.
Mindfulness also elevates mood by increasing levels of serotonin, another neurotransmitter vital to happiness. (15)
At the same time, mindfulness meditation reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol which otherwise significantly contributes to anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and memory loss. (16)
Mindfulness Meditation Builds a Better Brain
Meditation can built a bigger, healthier brain.
It also improves neural connections between various areas of the brain. (21)
Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Brain Inflammation
Cytokines are chemical messengers that regulate your immune response.
Elevated cytokine levels are responsible for chronic inflammation and are associated with anxiety, depression and other mood disorders. (22)
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You’d think changing genes would take a long time, but measurable changes can be observed in as little as eight hours of meditation. (25)
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 OK since it will help form a meditation habit you’ll stick with.
Start with a basic breathing mindfulness meditation.
Practiced regularly it will train your brain to stop jumping around and stay focused in the present.
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Here’s how it’s done.
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.
Many people think that if they’ve had thoughts while meditating that they’ve failed.
But the goal of meditation is NOT to have no thoughts.
Thinking thoughts is what your brain does incessantly.
The goal is to simply notice them when they come up and gently push them aside.
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If Mindfulness Meditation Makes You More Anxious
It’s possible that meditation can make you more anxious.
(I know. It’s happened to me.)
I’d been meditating many years on my own and decided to attend a local meditation class.
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During a guided meditation I had a “Dan Harris moment” and staggered out of the room gasping for air in the throes of a full-blown anxiety attack!
I did not let that one bad experience put me off and I meditate daily, but I have avoided group meditations since.
(It’s never happened again, in case you were wondering!)
If a breathing meditation makes your anxiety worse, I suggest switching to a moving meditation such as tai chi, qi gong, yoga or walking meditation.
As long as you are mindful, you can turn any activity into a mindfulness meditation.
Learn more about other mindfulness meditations in our meditation for beginners guide.
Beating Anxiety: Make Mindfulness a Way of Life
There’s overwhelming evidence that mindfulness meditation is an excellent tool for reducing anxiety.
But don’t expect your doctor to recommend it over anti-anxiety medication.
The National Institutes of Health acknowledges that meditation is safe and effective for anxiety, yet they caution that due to the “lack of supporting research data, meditation cannot currently be recommended as a principal treatment for anxiety disorders.” (26, 27)
If you currently take anti-anxiety medication, do not stop before talking to your doctor.
If you aren’t currently on any medication for anxiety, you may want to give mindfulness meditation a try first.
You may also consider trying an anti-anxiety herbal remedy to help you get over the hump.
But a downside to herbal remedies is that, just like medication, you have to keep taking them.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a technique easily incorporated into the most hectic schedule and doesn’t cost a thing.
And once you get the hang of it, you can train yourself to be mindful when doing any activity.
You can mindfully walk, eat, or brush your teeth.
You can notice your breath when waiting in line or sitting in traffic.
For more ways to fill your day with mindful activities, check out 40 Ways to Bring Mindfulness to Your Days at Everyday-Mindfulness.org.
The Power of Guided Meditation for Anxiety Relief
Mindfulness Meditation for Anxiety: The Bottom Line
A naturally hypervigilant brain is not well-suited to modern life and can easily turn into an anxious mind.
If you want to overcome anxiety without medication, mindfulness meditation is a proven way to reduce anxiety and stress and improve your overall well-being.
It does more than temporarily help you relax.
It actually changes your brain, rewiring it to be less anxious.
Mindfulness meditation requires no special training and as little as 10 minutes a day can bring noticeable anxiety relief.