Up to 33.7 percent of people develop an anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime, making anxiety one of the most common mental health issues.
These treatments can be highly effective at controlling anxiety, but they’re certainly not the only options that are available if you’re prone to feelings of anxiety, concern or acute symptoms such as panic attacks.
One popular natural treatment for anxiety is meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation. This type of meditation helps you slow down your racing, anxious thoughts, stay in the present moment, and let go of the feelings that can cause you to experience anxiety.
Meditation is popular for a reason — it works, and research is increasingly starting to support its role in the treatment of anxiety.
Below, we’ve explained what anxiety is, as well as the symptoms you might experience if you’re affected by an anxiety disorder.
We’ve also explained how you can use meditation to improve your anxiety symptoms, either on its own or in combination with other treatments.
Anxiety is a feeling or fear or uneasiness about something in your future. You might feel anxious before performing in front of other people, taking a test or making an important decision that can affect your future.
Feeling anxious occasionally is a normal part of life. However, people who feel anxious all of the time, or people who have severe anxiety, may suffer from anxiety disorders.
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, there are several different common anxiety disorders, including the following:
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). People with this form of anxiety face anxiety and worry on a persistent basis. If you have GAD, you may worry excessively about your job, social life or everyday activities.
Social anxiety disorder. People with social anxiety disorder feel afraid or anxious when they need to interact with other people. If you have this form of anxiety, you may develop anxiety symptoms before parties, performances or other social situations.
Panic disorder. People with panic disorder experience persistent panic attacks that may involve intense, severe symptoms. If you have this form of anxiety, you may have attacks at random, or when triggered by a specific situation, event or item.
Phobia disorders. People with phobias have intense fears of certain situations, objects or other items. For example, you may have a phobia of spiders, needles, heights or deep bodies of water.
Some people are also affected by other types of anxiety, such as separation anxiety (fear about spending time away from a partner, relative or other attachment figure) or agoraphobia (anxiety related to public spaces, such as open areas, crowded spaces and transportation).
Practitioners of meditation have long claimed that it can improve mental health and treat certain psychological issues, and science is increasingly starting to back their claims up.
In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2013, researchers studied the effects of mindfulness meditation in people with DSM-IV-diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder.
As part of the study, participants were divided into two groups. One group was instructed to take part in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, while the other was treated as an active control.
The researchers found that while both interventions produced improvements in anxiety severity, the people that took part in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program showed a greater reduction in anxiety symptoms using several clinical anxiety scales.
They concluded that mindfulness-based treatment may improve stress reactivity and assist with managing the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder.
Other research has produced similar findings. For example, a meta analysis of existing research by experts at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that mindfulness meditation may be as effective as antidepressants at providing relief from anxiety and depression symptoms.
In addition to reducing the severity of anxiety, regular meditation can provide other benefits for your mental and physical health. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, other benefits of meditation include:
Reducing blood pressure. Some research has found that a form of medication called Transcendental Meditation (TM) may lower blood pressure in people with an increased risk of developing hypertension.
Controlling pain. Although research findings are mixed, some studies have found that people with chronic pain experience improvements through meditation.
Improving insomnia and depression. Several studies have found that meditation has other mental health benefits in addition to improving anxiety, such as reducing insomnia and depression symptoms.
Assisting in quitting smoking. Findings from several studies suggest that meditation can help smokers control their cravings and reduce their risk of relapsing while trying to quit smoking.
Reduce the severity of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Although findings are mixed overall, research from the American Journal of Gastroenterology suggests that regular meditation may reduce the severity of IBS symptoms and improve quality of life for people with IBS.
It’s important to keep in mind that research into the overall benefits of meditation is still ongoing, meaning we may not yet be aware of some advantages offered by meditation.
Meditation is something that you can do with others or by yourself. There’s no minimum amount of time required to meditate.
In fact, it’s often possible to experience the benefits of meditation in just a few minutes a day. If you're a beginner and haven't tried to practice meditation for anxiety relief before, you may be wondering which form of meditation to try. To work toward stress relief and a calm mind, try these daily meditation techniques:
One simple form of mindfulness for treating anxiety is mindful breathing. This is something that you can do in just a few minutes a day.
To practice mindful breathing, focus your attention on the act of breathing — the physical inhale and exhale. Place yourself in a relaxed position, such as sitting down. Rest your tongue on the roof of your mouth and put your hands in a comfortable position.
Let your body relax and focus on the rhythm of your breathing. Take natural, deep breaths and focus on where you’re breathing from. You can even try the “box breathing” technique by inhaling deeply for a few seconds, holding your breath for the same amount of time, then breathing out for a few seconds and repeating until you feel better.
Try to feel the physical sensations of each breath. If your mind starts to wander, let it, but make sure to eventually bring it back to your breathing patterns.
As you breathe, pay attention to your entire body. The Greater Good Science Center of Berkeley says after five to seven minutes of breathing, take a break and return to your normal day.
Another great way to get started with meditation is to use a mobile app. Many podcast apps offer guided meditation for anxiety that you can use to relax, reduce stress and practice mindfulness each day, without having to attend classes or rely on other people to guide you. These apps can also be great at teaching sleep and visualization techniques for anxiety. Sometimes, they also include meditation music and playlists to help you better focus on your practice.
If you’re interested in making meditation a long-term habit, look for an app that tracks your daily progress.
Sometimes, you don’t need to meditate to practice mindfulness. For example, you can take part in mindfulness practice while you eat, bathe or do chores around the house by focusing positive energy into each moment and keeping your mind in the present.
Many mindfulness-based stress reduction programs involve this type of informal mindfulness, as it can help you to focus on present experience.
Another way to get started with meditation is to find a meditation center in your neighborhood or city.
This allows you to take part in meditation with others in a guided, focused environment that makes learning easier.
You can find local meditation centers by searching for phrases like “mindfulness meditation” or “meditation center” and your city’s name.
While meditation can often improve the symptoms of anxiety disorders, it’s definitely not the only way to treat anxiety.
If you think you may have an anxiety disorder, it’s important to talk to a mental health provider to learn more about your treatment options.
You can do this by searching for help in your city, or by using our online mental health services to connect with a licensed provider from home.
If you’re formally diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, your mental health provider may prescribe one or several of the following treatment options.
Several medications are used to treat anxiety, either on their own or in combination with therapy, lifestyle changes and habits such as meditation.
Currently, the most common medications for treating anxiety are:
Benzodiazepines. These medications relieve anxiety in the short term. They’re quick to start working and produce immediate improvements, but they can cause side effects and dependence if they’re used too often or for an extended period of time.
Antidepressants. Some antidepressants, such as SSRIs, are used to treat anxiety over the long term. Antidepressants can take several weeks to start working, making it vital to keep using your medication even if you don’t notice immediate improvements.
Beta-blockers. These medications are used to treat the physical symptoms caused by certain forms of anxiety, such as performance anxiety. They’re often used “as needed” for anxiety that occurs before a speech, job interview or other public event.
Our guide to anxiety medication provides more information on how these medications work to reduce the severity of anxiety, as well as the potential side effects that you should be aware of before using medication to treat anxiety.
One of the most effective ways to treat anxiety disorders is through psychotherapy. Therapy for anxiety can take a range of forms, with several different methods used to treat common anxiety disorders.
According to the American Psychological Association, one form of therapy that’s used to treat anxiety is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which combines cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) with mindfulness exercises.
As part of therapy, you may take part in more conventional cognitive therapy with your therapist, then use mindfulness exercises at home to reduce the severity of your symptoms and act on the techniques you’ve learned with your therapist.
Another form of therapy that’s used to treat anxiety is exposure therapy, which involves directly confronting your fears and worries in a controlled, safe environment.
Your mental health provider will work with you to select a form of therapy that helps you to make real, measurable progress towards overcoming your anxiety.
Sometimes, even small changes to your lifestyle and daily routine can have a big impact on stress management.
For example, scientific research published by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests that regular exercise not only improves your physical health but also that it can reduce stress, stimulate anti-anxiety effects and improve your mental wellbeing.
Even a small amount of daily exercise, such as 30 minutes of moderate-pace walking, may help to calm your mind and reduce negative thoughts or tension.
Other habits, such as limiting your intake of caffeine and alcohol, eating a balanced, healthy diet and identifying and avoiding your anxiety triggers, can all help to reduce anxiety and make your life less stressful.
Our full guide to coping with anxiety goes into more detail about natural techniques that you can use to keep your feelings of anxiety under control.
Meditation can have numerous positive effects on your health and wellbeing, including helping to control feelings of stress and anxiety.
If you’re feeling anxious, even a small amount of meditation practice may help to improve your moods and focus your thinking on the present.
While meditation can produce real improvements in anxiety symptoms, it may not be enough to treat severe anxiety on its own.
If you have severe or persistent anxiety, it’s best to consult with a licensed mental health provider.
You can do this by reaching out to a mental health care specialist in your city, or by connecting with a mental health provider online using our online psychiatry and online therapy services.
Interested in learning more about dealing with anxiety? Our free online mental health resources share proven, effective strategies that you can use to overcome anxiety, stress, depression, and other common mental health issues.
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Dr. Vicky Davis is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 20 years of experience in clinical practice, leadership and education.
Dr. Davis' expertise include direct patient care and many years working in clinical research to bring evidence-based care to patients and their families.
She is also an active member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.