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May 10, 2021
6 min read

Meditation for anxiety: does it work?

Constantly being stressed or anxious is bad for both your mental and physical health. Research shows that meditation can work to relieve anxiety. It’s a good complement or alternative to standard treatments for anxiety. Meditation physically changes the structure of your brain and has both long-term and short-term benefits. Using guided meditations is a good way to get started meditating.

steve silvestro

Reviewed by Steve Silvestro, MD

Written by Alison Dalton

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Fear is a valuable emotion. It can provide the physiological jolt you need to get out of tight scrapes—like seeing a car headed straight at you. Fear triggers the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which help you react quickly to danger. It also causes the release of cytokines, chemical messengers that regulate your immune response.

But problems begin when low-level fear becomes chronic (long term) and manifests as anxiety and stress. Meditation can be a helpful tool for managing anxiety and stress. 

What does chronic anxiety do to your body and brain?

When you’re chronically stressed or anxious, your cortisol levels and other “fight-or-flight” hormones are high more often than they should be. Continually high cortisol levels are linked with a condition called metabolic syndrome, which features increased blood sugar levels, heart disease, and obesity (Younge, 2015; van Rossum, 2017).

Constantly high cytokine levels can lead to chronic inflammation, including inflammation of the brain, putting you at greater risk for stress-related illnesses (Shrout, 2020).

These changes are linked with physical changes in your brain as well. These changes can include (Zhao, 2017; Makovac, 2015): 

  • A decrease in the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain considered the seat of learning and memory
  • An increase in the size of the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for fear responses
  • A lower volume of gray matter
  • A thinner cortex 

How common is anxiety?

Anxiety disorders—including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and phobia-related disorders—are the most common type of mental illness. One-third of all individuals experience an anxiety disorder during their lifetimes. Anxiety disorders are more common in women and most often occur during midlife (Bandelow, 2015).

What are the standard treatments for anxiety?

The standard medical treatments for anxiety are anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications and psychotherapy (usually cognitive behavioral therapy or “talk therapy”). Often, treatment is a combination of medication and therapy (Bandelow, 2017).

While these therapies may be effective for some people, they have some potential drawbacks. Medications prescribed for anxiety can have side effects, such as dizziness, drowsiness, and memory problems. Talk therapy takes time, may be expensive, and the results can vary, especially if you haven’t found the right therapist for you.

Can meditation treat anxiety?

Some cultures have practiced meditation for thousands of years. In Western countries, healthcare providers are now becoming aware of the benefits of meditation for anxiety and stress relief as an alternative or complementary treatment.

Many studies have shown that meditation has a positive effect on mental health and anxiety. For example:

  • A systematic review and meta-analysis showed that mindfulness meditation has beneficial effects as a standalone treatment for anxiety (Blanck, 2018).
  • One extensive review of 47 trials showed that meditation significantly improved anxiety without any negative side effects (Goyal, 2014).
  • Preliminary research shows that meditation can help relieve specific types of anxiety, such as social anxiety disorder (Koszycki, 2016).

Meditation has long-term benefits for anxiety, but it can have short-term benefits as well. For example, one study found that a five-minute session of a simple form of meditation immediately reduced blood pressure in people with hypertension (high blood pressure) (Arora, 2018.)

How does meditation work to calm anxiety?

Meditation interrupts rumination (dwelling on negative events) and negative thought patterns. When you think the same negative thoughts repeatedly, you create new neural pathways in your brain that strengthen the behavior. These neural pathways make it easy to slip into negative thinking again in the future.

Fortunately, even adult brains have a remarkable ability to change, in terms of both thoughts and physical structure. This is called neuroplasticity (McEwan, 2017). 

Meditation helps you to restructure your brain. You create new thought patterns and new neural pathways, training your brain to hone your focus and potentially be less anxious. A number of studies have confirmed, through MRI scanning, that meditation causes increases in size in the parts of the brain responsible for learning and memory processes, regulating emotions, self-awareness, and putting things into perspective (Hölzel, 2011).

This physical restructuring of your brain has many other benefits. Daily meditation can help prevent age-related mental decline, including Alzheimer’s disease (Luders, 2014). It reduces inflammation and even alters the expression of the genes involved in creating inflammation (Kaliman, 2019).

What types of meditation work best for anxiety?

There are many different types of meditation. Mindfulness meditation is the form of meditation that’s been studied the most, and it’s been found to be effective for relieving anxiety (Blanck, 2018).

In mindfulness practice, you simply notice, without judging, what you’re experiencing through your senses or what’s going on in your thoughts and emotions. Being in the present moment—or, more typically, by continually bringing yourself back into the present moment any time your attention has wandered—is an important part of mindfulness meditation. By mentally stepping back from anxious thoughts, you distance yourself from them. Noticing negative emotions and thoughts and then letting them go is a powerful way to retrain your brain.

What’s the best way to get started with meditating?

Beginning a meditation practice can be difficult for some people. Guided meditations, whether in-person, online, or via apps, are a good way to get started. With guided meditations, you get the benefit of an experienced practitioner leading the session. You don’t have to feel that you’re going it alone.

Many guided meditations are based on mindfulness meditation. Others are based on imagery or visualization. For instance, a guided meditation for anxiety might have you visualize yourself entering a calm, peaceful environment, like a sunny beach or a forest.

Other forms of meditation include progressive muscle relaxation or body scan, deep breathing exercises, and guided imagery and visualizations. All of these methods can help to calm anxiety and relieve stress.

What if meditation makes you anxious?

Some people find sitting meditation practices actually make them more anxious. For these people, there are structured moving meditation practices, such as walking in specified patterns, like a labyrinth. Tai chi, qi gong, and yoga can also function as types of moving meditation.

Where can you find meditation instruction and classes?

Many meditations are available online in sound files or videos, and there are a number of meditation apps. If you prefer, you can take in-person meditation classes. Because college students are often prone to anxiety, college and university websites are excellent places to find many different guided meditations and relaxation exercises. Many are free for anyone to use.

What if you’re taking medication for anxiety?

If you’re currently taking medication for anxiety or anxiety-related depression, don’t stop taking your medication when starting a meditation practice. Talk to your healthcare provider. You may find you need less medication over time. Your provider can help with creating a tapering plan if together you determine that it’s appropriate to do so.

References

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  2. Bandelow, B., & Michaelis, S. (2015). Epidemiology of anxiety disorders in the 21st century. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 17(3), 327–335. doi: 10.31887/DCNS.2015.17.3/bbandelow. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4610617/
  3. Bandelow, B., Michaelis, S., & Wedekind, D. (2017). Treatment of anxiety disorders. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 19(2), 93–107. doi: 10.31887/DCNS.2017.19.2/bbandelow. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5573566/
  4. Blanck, P., Perleth, S., Heidenreich, T., Kröger, P., Ditzen, B., Bents, H., & Mander, J. (2018). Effects of mindfulness exercises as stand-alone intervention on symptoms of anxiety and depression: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Behaviour research and therapy, 102, 25–35. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2017.12.002. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29291584/
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