Anxiety is our body’s way of saying, “Hey, I’m experiencing too much stress all at once.” This happens to the best of us. But when that feeling of being “always on alert” becomes background noise that doesn’t go away, that’s when it’s time to seek help. Mindfulness and meditation for anxiety is a growing field that can help you navigate the many ways that anxiety can affect your life. This guide is not meant to serve as a diagnosing tool or a treatment path—it’s simply a collection of research and practices you can turn to as you begin to help right your ship.
How Mindfulness Helps Anxiety
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
Leading expert Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” adding: “in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”
When you become aware of the present moment, you gain access to resources you may not have realized were with you all along—a stillness at your core. An awareness of what you need and don’t need in your life that’s with you all the time. You may not be able to change your situation, but mindfulness practice offers the space to change your response to your situation.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), founded by Kabat-Zinn, the gold-standard for research-backed mindfulness. Developed over 40 years ago, MBSR is an 8-week program, including supported teachings, mindfulness practices, and movement practices that help people work with the stresses of everyday life. MBSR practices allow you to bring kind awareness and acknowledgment to any stressed or anxious feelings in your body and mind and simply allow them to be. A 1992 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that MBSR can effectively reduce symptoms of anxiety and panic even in those with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or panic disorder with agoraphobia.
According to other research, when you can create space between yourself and what you’re experiencing, your anxiety can soften. But if you get too used to that low rumble of stress always being there, it can gradually grow, creating a stress “habit” that is detrimental to your health and well-being. Consequently, when we get caught up in patterns of reactivity, we create more distress in our lives. This is why it’s so important to discern clearly the difference between reacting with unawareness and responding with mindfulness.
Mindfulness Works, But Not for Everyone
Mindfulness is an adjunct to, not a replacement for, treatment. Sometimes, when people have difficult or extensive histories of trauma or abuse, meditation practice may put them in touch with those memories and emotions, which can sometimes feel overwhelming, particularly at first. For this reason, if you have a history like this it’s wise to be working with a therapist while exploring the practice of mindfulness.
Meditation does seem to improve mental health—but it’s not necessarily more effective than other steps you can take. Early research suggested that mindfulness meditation had a dramatic impact on our mental health. But as the number of studies has grown, so has scientific skepticism about these initial claims.
For example, a 2014 meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine examined 47 randomized controlled trials of mindfulness meditation programs, which included a total of 3,515 participants. They found that meditation programs resulted only in small to moderate reductions in anxiety and depression.
“In essence, practicing mindfulness is a process of learning to trust and stay with feelings of discomfort rather than trying to escape from or analyze them,” says Bob Stahl, Ph.D., Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher, founder of multiple MBSR programs, and co-author of multiple books on MBSR. “This often leads to a remarkable shift; time and again your feelings will show you everything you need to know about them—and something you need to know for your own well-being.”
Pause: Connect with your breath
How Mindfulness Calms Anxious Feelings
- Mindfulness helps you learn to stay with difficult feelings without analyzing, suppressing, or encouraging them. When you allow yourself to feel and acknowledge your worries, irritations, painful memories, and other difficult thoughts and emotions, this often helps them dissipate.
- Mindfulness allows you to safely explore the underlying causes of your stress and worry. By going with what’s happening rather than expending energy fighting or turning away from it, you create the opportunity to gain insight into what’s driving your concerns.
- Mindfulness helps you create space around your worries so they don’t consume you. When you begin to understand the underlying causes of your apprehension, freedom and a sense of spaciousness naturally emerge.
Calm Anxiety in Three Steps:
- Open your attention to the present moment. The invitation is to bring attention to our experience in a wider and more open manner that isn’t really involved with selecting or choosing or evaluating, but simply holding—becoming a container for thoughts, feelings or sensations in the body that are present and seeing if we can watch them from one moment to the next.
- Focus on the breath. Let go of that widescreen and bring a focus that’s much more concentrated and centered on breathing in one region of your body—the breath of the belly, or the chest, or the nostrils, or anywhere that the breath makes itself known, and keep that more concentrated focus.
- Bring your attention to your body. Become aware of sensations in the body as a whole, sitting with the whole body, the whole breath, once again we move back to a wider and spacious container of attention for our experience.
The Science of Mindfulness for Anxiety
In 1992, Zindel Segal, John Teasdale, and Mark Williams collaborated to create an 8-week program modeled on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Jon Kabat-Zinn—who developed MBSR—had some initial misgivings about the program, fearing the curriculum might insufficiently emphasize how important it is for instructors to have a deep personal relationship with mindfulness practice. Once he got to know the founders better, he became a champion for the program. In 2002, the three published Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse, now a landmark book.
MBCT’s credibility rests firmly on ongoing research. Two randomized clinical trials (published in 2000 and 2008 in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology) laid the foundation, indicating MBCT reduces rates of depression relapse by 50% among patients who suffer from recurrent depression. Recent findings published in The Lancet in 2015 revealed that combining a tapering off of medication with MBCT is as effective as an ongoing maintenance dosage of medication. Further studies have found that MBCT is a potentially effective intervention for mood and anxiety disorders.
Should I Choose MBSR or MBCT?
According to the Centre for Mindfulness Studies, mindful awareness is the foundation of MBSR and MBCT. In both 8-week programs, participants are guided through a series of practices that encourage paying attention to experiences, thoughts, emotions, and sensations in the body. Explore the differences between MBSR and MBCT before you decide which program to follow.
The Key Differences Between MBSR and MBCT
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction:
- Designed for everyone (particularly people who deal with chronic stress)
- Explores how mindfulness can help with stress, and the stress of living with a chronic illness
- Uses mindfulness practices to highlight different ways to respond to suffering
- Works to change your relationship to suffering by encouraging you to turn toward pain
- Emphasizes being present with what is
- Recommended for general psychological health and stress management and as an intervention for symptoms of anxiety
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy:
- Designed to prevent depressive relapse
- Explores how mindfulness can help you stay well while dealing with depression or anxiety
- Uses mindfulness practices to offer insight on negative mind states associated with depression and anxiety
- Works to change your relationship to suffering by recognizing patterns in thought and emotion
- Emphasizes your choice in how to respond to negative mind states
- Recommended as an adjunctive treatment for unipolar depression and an intervention for symptoms of anxiety
How Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Helps with Anxiety
A skills-based approach, MBCT asks patients to inquire into, familiarize themselves with, and redirect the thought processes that are getting them into trouble (cognitive distortions, or what some people call “negative self-talk,” or “stinkin’ thinkin’”). It takes close attention and stick-to-itiveness to shift these ingrained thought processes. MBCT isn’t about changing or fixing the content of our challenging thoughts, it’s about becoming more intimately and consistently aware of these thoughts and patterns. The awareness itself reduces the grip of persistent and pernicious thought loops and storylines.
Like MBSR, MBCT is an eight-week program consisting of weekly two-hour classes with a mid-course day-long session. It combines guided meditations with group discussions, various kinds of inquiry and reflection, and take-home exercises. “Repetition and reinforcement, coming back to the same places, again and again, are key to the program,” says Zindel Segal, “and hopefully people continue that into daily life beyond the initial MBCT program, in both good times and bad.”
Can Mindfulness Really Help Reduce Anxiety?
A small study conducted at the University of Waterloo suggests that just 10 minutes of mindfulness helps with ruminative thought patterns. In the study, 82 participants who experience anxiety were given a computer task to complete, but were regularly disrupted. They were then split into two groups: one group listened to a guided meditation for 10 minutes, while the other group listened to an audio book for 10 minutes. Participants were then sent back to the computer while the disruptions continued.
The meditators had greater success in staying focused, and, as a result, they performed better on the task. “That was surprising to me,” says lead researcher and psychology PhD candidate Mengran Xu. “Mindfulness meditation promoted a switch of attention from their internal thoughts to the external environment. It helped them focus on what’s happening right now, in the moment, and not to get trapped in their worries.”
This study adds to the growing body of evidence that mindfulness could be a powerful ally for people who struggle with ruminating thoughts and internal focus common with anxiety and depression. But, Xu adds, just why it helps is still unknown. “If we know how, we can make it more effective.”
He wants to find out. Xu and colleagues have already finished one forthcoming study where participants were instructed in mindfulness meditation, muscle relaxation, or listened to an audio book. Xu says his team wants to see “how each intervention would affect people’s scope of attention, cognition, and problem solving in a hypothetical stressful situation. The aim is to examine if mindfulness practice expands people’s perspective.
“Sometimes [stress] is inevitable, but it depends on how broad your perspective is. Both mindfulness meditation, and relaxation can help broaden how people think about things.”
Guided Meditations for Anxiety
A Simple Meditation to Overcome Anxiety
Zindel Segal says bringing awareness to the sensations that accompany difficult experiences offers the possibility of learning to relate differently to such experiences in each moment.
People often stumble over the concept of acceptance as an approach for dealing with difficult emotions and mind states. In MBCT groups that I’ve led, this predictably comes up around the fourth or fifth session as participants say “How can I accept this pain?” or “I want to feel fewer of these difficult emotions, not more!” These reactions reflect an underlying calculation that even though trying to avoid or push away negative thoughts and feelings can be exhausting, the strategy has worked in the past, so… why risk using a different and unfamiliar strategy?
In these moments, rather than answer this question directly, I find it helpful to remind myself of three simple points:
1. Allowing negative emotions to exist in our lives—for the moment—does not mean that we’ve chosen not to take action. The concept of acceptance, as introduced in MBCT, is intended to describe the possibility of developing a different relationship to experience, one that is characterized by allowing an experience and letting it be. Allowing difficult feelings to be in awareness means registering their presence before making a choice about how to respond to them. It takes a real commitment and involves a deliberate movement of attention. Importantly, “allowing” is not the same as being resigned or passive or helpless.
2. Denying that a negative mindset is taking place is more risky for your mental health. The opposite of allowing is actually quite risky. Being unwilling to experience negative thoughts, feelings, or sensations is often the first link in a mental chain that can lead to automatic, habitual, and critical patterns of mind becoming re-established. You can see this when someone says “I’m stupid to think like this” or “I should be strong enough to cope with that.” By contrast, shifting the basic stance toward experience, from one of “not wanting” to one of “opening,” allows this chain reaction of habitual responses to be altered at the first link. Thus, “I should be strong enough” shifts to “Ah, fear is here” or “Judgment is present.”
3. Acceptance helps you work through each unpleasant experience. The third is that the practices of MBCT offer concrete ways for cultivating a stance of “allowing and letting be” amid painful experiences. We often “know” intellectually that it might be helpful to be more loving, caring, and accepting toward ourselves and what we are feeling, but we have very little idea how to do it. These capacities are unlikely to be produced merely by an effort of will. Instead, they require working through the body with repeated practice over time to notice how things, like anxiety, may show up as tightness in the chest, or sadness as heaviness in the shoulders.
A 30-Minute Meditation for Anxiety and Stress
MBSR teacher Bob Stahl leads you through this meditation combining breath awareness, a body scan, and mindfulness of thoughts, so you can explore sources of stress and anxiety.
Give yourself about thirty minutes for this mindfulness practice. You can do this practice in a seated position, standing, or even lying down. Choose a position in which you can be comfortable and alert.
- Take a moment to thank yourself for being here—for taking this time to be present, to go inside, into your own life.
- Connect with your mind and body with a mindful check-in: Feeling any sensations, any holdings, any tightness in the body as well as feeling into your mood, feeling into your emotions, and just acknowledging whatever’s being felt and letting be.
- Now very gently, withdrawing the awareness from the mindful check-in, let’s bring our attention to the breath: Being mindful of the breath in the abdomen, expanding on an inhalation and falling on an exhalation. Breathing in and breathing out with awareness.
- Now gently withdrawing the awareness from breathing, we’ll shift our focus to a body scan. Feeling into this body, into the world of sensations, thoughts, and emotions, and acknowledging whatever is being experienced. Whatever arises in the body, or perhaps at times even in the mind and emotions, acknowledging and letting be.
- Breathe into your whole body. We may notice from time to time tensions, tightness, achiness, and if we can allow any of these areas to soften, by all means, let that happen. It’s also important to know that if we are unable to soften, our practice informs us to let be. Let whatever sensations ripple and resonate wherever they need to go—the same applies even to our thoughts and emotions, letting them be.
- Be kind to any anxious thoughts that arise with mindful inquiry. As we’re feeling into this body and mind, we may at times continue to experience some anxious thoughts, worries, fears, and there are times when we can use the practice of mindfulness, of inquiry, of investigating to discover potentially the underlying causes of our fears. If it appears that even after practicing the body scan and mindful breathing that we’re persisting with some anxious feelings, bringing attention to those feelings themselves now to acknowledge what’s being felt, feeling into the fear.
- Wade into your feelings with compassion and gentleness. Just as we sometimes put our toes into the water to acclimate to the water temperature slowly, part by part. We should very gently dip our toes into feeling fear, just acknowledging what’s there, feeling into the fear with awareness—there’s no need to try to analyze or figure things out, just feeling into the experience of feeling anxious, fearful, worried, and letting be. And whatever arises, equally acknowledging and letting it be, this is how we feel into the heart of fear. Just listening with such compassion. No need to push ourselves more than we can handle but just working with the edges, feeling into the anxiety and acknowledging. As we learn to be with things as they are, we may discover the underlying causes of our fear and pain.
- And now gently withdrawing from the mindful inquiry practice, come back to the breath again. Breathe in and out, feeling in the abdomen the belly expanding on the inhalation and falling on the exhalation. Breathing in and breathing out, with awareness. Just staying present to each breath, in and out.
- Take a moment to watch your thoughts. Just like we’re watching the breath coming and going, we can even begin watching the very thoughts we think as though we’re watching the clouds flying by in the sky, like sitting at the edge of a river just watching whatever is floating downstream. Beginning to observe the mind and even the thoughts of fear are nothing but passing mental phenomena, like clouds, observing any fearful, anxious thoughts as just mental events that come and go. Observing the mind, thoughts, noticing the ever-changing nature of thoughts, just coming and going. As we become aware of thoughts and the traps we find ourselves in, we can become free.
- And now gently coming back to the breath. Just be mindful, breathing in and breathing out. Now as we begin to end this meditation on working with anxiety let’s take a moment to remember all those that are being challenged with these feelings, all those living with fear, worry—let us extend our well-wishes of healing, of peace, to all those living in fear. May we take these moments now to thank yourself for proactively turning into your fears and working with them. As we acclimate ourselves to our fears, may we not be so challenged by them. May all beings, wherever they are, may they be free from fear, and may all beings be at peace.
A 20-Minute Meditation for Anxious Emotions
A meditation from Bob Stahl involving deep investigation into the causes of anxious feelings so you can discover the story lines that trigger and drive your emotions.
- Begin with a brief mindful check-in, taking a few minutes to acknowledge how you’re currently feeling in your body and mind…being mindful of whatever is in your awareness and letting it all be. There’s nothing that needs to be fixed, analyzed, or solved. Just allow your experience and let it be. Being present.
- Now gently shift your attention to the breath, becoming mindful of breathing in and out. Bring awareness to wherever you feel the breath most prominently and distinctly, perhaps at your nose, in your chest, or in your belly, or perhaps somewhere else. There’s no other place you need to go…nothing else you need to do…just being mindful of your breath flowing in and out. If your mind wanders away from the breath, just acknowledge wherever it went, then return to being mindful of breathing in and out.
- Reflect on a specific experience of anxiety, perhaps something recent so you can remember it more clearly. It doesn’t have to be an extreme experience of anxiety, perhaps something that you’d rate at 5 or 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. Recall the experience in detail, as vividly as you can, invoking some of that anxiety now, in the present moment.
- As you imagine the experience and sense into it, be mindful of how the anxiety feels in your body and stay present with the sensations. Your only job right now is to feel and acknowledge whatever physical sensations you’re experiencing in your body and let them be. There’s no need to change them. Let the sensations run their course, just like a ripple on a lake is gradually assimilated into the entirety of the body of water.
- Now feel into any emotions that emerge…anxiety, fear, sadness, anger, confusion…whatever you may feel. As with physical sensations, just acknowledge how these emotions feel and let them be. There’s no need to analyze them or figure them out.
- If strong emotions don’t arise, this doesn’t mean you aren’t doing this meditation correctly. The practice is simply to acknowledge whatever is in your direct experience and let it be. Whatever comes up in the practice is the practice.
- Bringing awareness to your anxiety may sometimes amplify your anxious feelings. This is normal, and the intensity will subside as you open to and acknowledge what you’re experiencing and give it space to simply be.
- Continue feeling into the anxiety, just allowing any feelings in the body and mind and letting them be, cultivating balance and the fortitude to be with things as they are. The very fact that you’re acknowledging anxiety rather than turning away from it is healing.
- As you continue to acknowledge your physical sensations and emotions, they may begin to reveal a host of memories, thoughts, feelings, and physical experiences that may have created limiting definitions of who you think you are. You may begin to see more clearly into how these old patterns of conditioning have driven your anxiety. This understanding can set you free—freer than you ever felt possible.
- Now gradually transition back to the breath, breathing mindfully in and out… Next, slowly shift your awareness from your breath to sensing into your heart. Take some time to open into your heart with self-compassion, acknowledging your courage in engaging with your anxiety. In this way, your anxiety can become your teacher, helping you open your heart to greater wisdom, compassion, and ease within your being.
- As you’re ready to end this meditation, congratulate yourself for taking this time to meditate and heal yourself. Then gradually open your eyes and return to being present in the environment around you. May we all find the gateways into our hearts and be free.
A 17-Minute Meditation to Create Space Between You and Your Anxiety
Creating some space around the feelings of anxiety so we can explore the experience directly, without being carried away by it.
- When you’re ready, come into a comfortable seated position. Let’s take some breaths here. Find your ground by feeling your feet on the floor beneath you. Feel your body touching the chair or cushion you’re on. Really allow yourself to settle into this: Feel gravity, and release your weight toward gravity. Let’s take a few deeper breaths now. If you are already feeling anxious, it can be helpful to really extend the exhale. Take a nice, long inhale, then very much emphasize the exhale.
- Explore how you’re feeling right now. If you’re feeling anxious right now, it’s a great opportunity to practice. But if not, bring to mind a time recently when you felt some kind of fear, anxiety, worry, or agitation. Recall the situation or conversation. Just remember that event, and as you do, you might start to notice anxious thoughts emerging in your mind. You might also start to notice some related sensations in your body.
- Open your attention wide. Before we turn toward the anxiety more fully, let’s first open our attention wide. Here’s where we can use A.W.E. (And What Else?) Just notice. You may be feeling anxiety right now, but let’s direct our attention away from that and actively explore our senses.
- Open your eyes and look around. If your eyes are closed, I invite you to open them to look around the space you’re in. Simply orient yourself. And now notice three things that you see in the space around you. They can be very neutral or even pleasant things—flowers, an image. Simply describe them to yourself in your mind: the colours, shapes, forms.
- Turn your attention to the sounds around you. Once you’ve noticed three things visually and described them to yourself, turn your attention to hearing. Allow your attention to settle on the sounds around you. Listen for three different sounds; they can be near or far. Emphasize pleasant or neutral sounds. And, again, describe them to yourself: notice the vibration, the tone, how they arise and then pass.
- Now, let’s turn our attention to taste. This might be a little more challenging, but just notice: Can you detect any flavour in your mouth? Maybe something you ate before starting this practice? Toothpaste? Just notice what it’s like to taste.
- Now, turn your attention to your sense of smell. You might take in a deeper breath here. Just notice: Can you detect any scent in the space around you? Notice how they can shift and change with each breath.
- And finally, let’s move to the sense of touch. Beginning on the outer surface of our skin, feel the contact with the chair or the ground. If your hands are touching or resting against your body, just feel that sensation. It’s very simple: What do you notice when you turn your attention toward your hands touching? Feel the contact of your clothes with your body. Feel the temperature of the air on your skin. What can you notice?
- If you have the energy and some space now, turn your attention toward the felt sense of anxiety. If you feel the need for more space at any time, simply keep turning your attention outward: the sounds, the sights—wherever it feels calming and grounding for you to attend in your senses. When you do feel ready to explore, turn your attention to the felt sense: How do you notice anxiety? Where do you feel it in your body? Take a breath and notice where you feel it. Maybe it’s in your belly? See if you can notice the details, too: Is it throbbing or tingling? What’s the energy like? Within the sensation of anxiety, does it feel like there’s a lot of movement? Does it shift and change as you pay attention to it?
- Can you gently relax around the feeling of anxiety or fear? Think of the rest of your body holding this feeling with a lot of care. Pay close attention, explore, be curious: How does anxiety show up? How is it shifting? If at any point it becomes overwhelming or you get lost in thinking and find you’re unable to stay with the sensations, simply go to And What Else: Notice the sights around you. Notice the sounds. Feel the ground.
- If you are able to pay attention to this sense of anxiety, simply noticing it, let’s drop in a question. Staying with the felt sense of this fear, anxiety, worry, or agitation, just ask: What do you need? What do you want me to know? What are you trying to offer me? Just see what answers, images, words arise here. We’re asking ourselves here: What do I need?
- As we close out the meditation, see if you can commit to doing something to address that need you’ve identified. Alternatively, simply remember the information that has arisen for you during this practice. And now, if you’re ready, take a few deeper breaths. Soften your body slightly. Feel the seat under you, the ground under you.
A 20-Minute Meditation for Working with Anxiety
An awareness practice to establish calm in body and mind, so you can explore your worries and meet emotions that arise with kindness.
- To begin, sit in a way that is relaxed, and take a moment to adjust your posture on your seat to one that’s more comfortable. Feel your body in contact with the surface beneath you.
- Allow yourself to experience whatever is present right now. Whatever bodily feelings, mood, emotions, mind states, and thoughts are present. You might take a few deeper breaths to invite the body and the mind to relax and settle. Take a nice, full, deep in-breath, relaxing, releasing, and letting go on the out-breath. Breathe in, and fill the chest and the lungs with the in-breath. Release and let go on the out-breath.
- As you breathe in, you might invite in a quality of calm. You could repeat the word calm silently to yourself as you breathe in, and then again as you breathe out. Breathe in, calm the body, breathe out, calm the mind.
- When you’re ready, let the breath settle into its natural rhythm, allowing it to be just as it is. Breathe in, breathe out.
- You might invite a smile to the corners of your eyes and the corners of your mouth; a smile sends a message to our brain and to our nervous system that we’re safe and don’t have to be hyper-vigilant. Smiling invites us to relax, and be at ease.
- While sitting in a way that is relaxed and alert, you might bring to your mind a situation that is a source of anxiety or stress for you. It might be a work situation, family, health, finances, or it might be a combination of factors. Allow yourself to take in all the feelings, sensations, and emotions, and the overall sense of this situation, in the body and in the mind. Choose not to follow scenarios in your mind about what might happen or things that might go badly, and simply observe your thoughts and let them go. Be open to whatever bodily sensations are present with kindness and acceptance. There might be contraction, heat, tightness, tingling, or pulsing. Whatever is present, say yes to what you’re feeling. Be open to these feelings and let them come and go. Bring a kind awareness to whatever emotions are present, and allow yourself to feel them fully; they might be fear, worry, anxiety, or sadness, to name a few. Let these feelings be as big as they want to be, and say yes to all that you’re feeling. Let your awareness and kind attention hold whatever is present, whatever is arising for you in the body, heart, and mind. Bring interest to the changing flow of experience, letting everything stay for a period of time, and then pass on their own time. Meet it all with kindness, acceptance, and interest.
- If anxious thoughts arise like, “This will never go away” or, “I’ll never be able to do everything I have to do,” meet these thoughts with kindness and care. Without identifying with them or treating them as true, let the thoughts come and go. Continue to open to your experience in this way, meeting your experience with kindness and care. If it’s challenging, acknowledge that it is difficult. You could put a hand on your heart and wish yourself well, if this is helpful.
- Think to yourself, “May I be happy and may I live with ease.” Take a deep in-breath, letting go on the out-breath. Hold your experience with kindness and with care.
- Bring awareness to any emotion that may be present, perhaps underneath the feelings. Maybe there’s fear that the sadness, grief, or worry will continue. See if you can say yes to the emotion. Meet your emotions with kindness and care, and notice how they, too shift and change if you can open to them.
- If a sensation or an emotion gives rise to an urge or an impulse to do something negative, like eat something unhealthy, take a drink, or take a drug, see if you can stay with that energy. See that this, too comes and stays for a while, and then passes. If it’s helpful you could imagine it as like a wave coming along. Maybe there’s a strong energy, and the wave crests. But if you stay with it with awareness and with kindness, perhaps those feelings pass for a while, and then there’s calm. Be open to the thoughts or narratives that come up in your mind; they might be “This is too much,” or “I need to do something to deal with this pain or difficult feeling,” and invite yourself to stay with the direct experience.
- If the pain, discomfort, difficult emotion, or difficult feeling seems like it’s too intense, see if you can bring your awareness to another part of your experience. Perhaps an area of your body that feels more neutral, such as your hands, or your feet, or your seat, or something in your life that you’re happy about or grateful for. Let your awareness rest on a more pleasant or neutral experience for a time. When you feel ready, let your attention move back to the bodily feelings, and be open again to your experience, riding whatever waves arise.
- Stay as close to your direct experience as you can, and bring a kind awareness to the thoughts and stories that surround the pain, stress, or difficult emotion. Choose not to identify with the thoughts but just acknowledge them as thoughts. Let them come and go in their own time with kindness.
- Sit quietly for a couple of minutes, and be open to the changing flow of experience, recognizing how mindfulness can help us open up to and untangle ourselves from painful thoughts, stress, worry, anxiety, and the patterns of behavior that tend to go with those feelings, emotions, and mental states.
Breathing Exercises for Anxiety
Mindful breathing is part of the foundation of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. It involves diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing, also known as belly breathing, which is very helpful in calming the body because it’s the way that you naturally breathe when asleep or relaxed.
How to Practice Mindful Breathing
It might be helpful to start off practicing mindful breathing for five minutes once a day and build it up from there. Maybe you’ll find that you can add a second or even a third 5-minute session, practicing mindful breathing at different times of your day. You can get additional benefit if you gradually extend your mindful breathing to 10, 15, 20, or even 30 minutes at least once a day. Let this be a part of your practice of mindfulness that you look forward to doing, a special time for you to center yourself and “return home” to your being. Feel free to use an alarm clock or timer; you can download free meditation timers from the Insight Meditation Center that feature a pleasant sound.
Like other meditations, mindful breathing can be incorporated into your daily activities too. As far as where to practice informally, just about anywhere works. Take a few minutes at home, at work, at the doctor’s office, at the bus stop, or even while waiting in line to bring a little mindful breathing into your life. You can also make it a habit to take a few mindful breaths right after you wake up, when you take a morning break, at lunchtime, in the afternoon, at night, or right before you go to sleep. Once you’ve practiced mindful breathing at these times, you can experiment with using it when you’re feeling some angst, to help you calm the rush of panic in your body.
The reason diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing is an “anti-panic/anxiety” breath is it helps regulate irregular breathing patterns fairly quickly. Often when you feel panicked, your breathing will become rapid, irregular, and shallow. You’ll tend to breathe mostly in your chest and neck. When you shift to diaphragmatic breathing, this will help regulate the breath so you can begin to feel more balanced and relaxed.
Explore your breath:
- Take a moment right now to be mindful of your breath. Gently place your hands on your belly.
- Breathe normally and naturally. When you breathe in, simply be aware that you’re breathing in; when you breathe out, be aware that you’re breathing out.
- Feel your belly rise and fall with your breath. Now take two more mindful breaths and then continue reading.
A 5-Minute Breathing Meditation
Find a quiet place where you can be undisturbed. Turn off your phone and any other devices that might take you away from this special time that you’re giving yourself. Assume a posture in which you can be comfortable and alert, whether sitting in a chair or on a cushion or lying down.
You can learn mindful breathing by following the script below, pausing briefly after each paragraph. Aim for a total time of at least five minutes.
- Appreciate your time. Take a few moments to congratulate yourself that you are taking some time for meditation.
- Become aware of your breath. Now bring awareness to the breath in the abdomen or belly, breathing normally and naturally.
- Stay with your breath. As you breathe in, be aware of breathing in; as you breathe out, be aware of breathing out. If it is helpful, place your hands on your belly to feel it expand with each inhalation and contract with each exhalation. Simply maintaining this awareness of the breath, breathing in and breathing out. If you are unable to feel the breath in your belly, find some other way—place your hands on your chest, or feel the movement of air in and out of your nostrils.
- Just be. There’s no need to visualize, count, or figure out the breath. Just being mindful of breathing in and out. Without judgment, just watching, feeling, experiencing the breath as it ebbs and flows. There’s no place to go and nothing else to do. Just being in the here and now, mindful of your breathing, living life one inhalation and one exhalation at a time.
- Feel what your body is doing naturally. As you breathe in, feel the abdomen or belly expand or rise like a balloon inflating, then feel it receding or deflating or falling on the exhalation. Just riding the waves of the breath, moment by moment, breathing in and out.
- Acknowledge your wandering mind. From time to time, you may notice that your attention has wandered from the breath. When you notice this, just acknowledge that your mind wandered and acknowledge where it went, and then bring your attention gently back to the breath.
- Be where you are. Remember, there is no other place to go, nothing else you need to do, and no one you have to be right now. Just breathing in and breathing out. Breathing normally and naturally, without manipulating the breath in any way, just being aware of the breath as it comes and goes.
- Acknowledge your time. As you come to the end of this meditation, congratulate yourself that you took this time to be present and that you are directly cultivating inner resources for healing and well-being. Let us take a moment to end this meditation with the wish “May all beings be at peace.”
How to Stop a Panic Attack
A great many people who suffer with panic attacks describe feeling a disconnect from reality that scares and confuses them. You may feel completely helpless, as though there is nothing you can do and no one can help you. You literally believe that a threat is present, likely, or imminent. It’s a frightening experience not easily forgotten. In fact, the fear alone that it may happen again is enough to start the cycle of panic and insecurity. If you’re feeling scared or insecure about a reoccurrence right now, you are not alone, and there is help.
A Meditation for Investigating Panic Attacks
There’s no predicting when your next panic attack will occur. It might happen while you’re out running errands, interacting with strangers at the market or post office. Being in public may feel like the worst-case scenario for a panic attack, but it is also your cue to listen to your mind and body.
Mindful inquiry will help you investigate what is driving your panicky emotions, in order for you to become free from them. Practice these skills the next time you feel panic beginning to rise.
Take a moment for a mindful inquiry practice:
- Before you begin, ask yourself whether this is a good time to explore your feelings. Do you feel safe at this time? If you do feel safe, proceed with the next step. If you do not feel safe, then it is okay to wait and attempt this practice at a more secure time, perhaps when you’ve returned to the privacy of your home.
- Your practice begins as soon as you tune in to and become mindful with your breathing. Wherever you are—running around town, meeting up with a friend, standing in line, or walking down the aisle of a market—you carry your breath everywhere, and it is your focal point for maintaining your connection to the present wherever you go. Be mindful of your breathing, in and out, noticing the sensations of warmth as you breathe in and coolness as you breathe out, experiencing the rise and fall, the in and out of each breath.
- Take this moment to recognize any and all feelings that are with you now. If you feel out of control, then just acknowledge it as a feeling, without attaching details or stories to it. If you feel an uncontrollable fear that you’re going insane, then recognize this feeling without striving to critique or analyze the feeling. Give yourself permission to just identify and acknowledge the emotions that are coming up and let them be. You may be telling yourself: I feel as if something horrible is about to happen. I feel as though I’ve lost touch with reality. I feel as though I can’t trust anyone. Maybe I can’t even trust myself. Other unrelated feelings and thoughts may come to mind, like I’m hungry. I hope that he calls soon. I wonder where I left my to-do list. Make space in this moment to simply let these feelings emerge and try to stay with the feelings and thoughts just as they are. Simply acknowledge what’s here, without attaching yourself or clinging to any one thought or feeling.
- You may experience a strong impulse to resist or fight against these painful and terrifying emotions, as may be your habit. We all have a natural tendency to strive toward what feels good. For this exercise, you are practicing non-striving: not trying, or not attempting to change your feelings or shift them in a different direction. Just let the feelings be what they are. The less energy you spend trying to resist or alter your panicky emotions, the lesser the hold your panic can have on you.
- Remember to be aware of your breathing and to connect again with the here and now.
A 30-Minute Meditation for Investigating Panic Attacks
Note: Before beginning this guided meditation, please consider whether this is the right time for you to do it. Do you feel reasonably safe and open? If not, do some mindful breathing and come back to it at another time.
- First, congratulate yourself that you are dedicating some precious time for meditation.
- Become aware of your body and mind and whatever you are carrying within you. Perhaps there are feelings from the day’s events or whatever has been going on recently.
- May you simply allow and acknowledge whatever is within you and let it be, without any form of analysis.
- Gradually, shift the focus of awareness to the breath, breathing normally and naturally. As you breathe in, be aware of breathing in, and as you breathe out, be aware of breathing out.
- Awareness can be focused at either the tip of the nose or the abdomen, depending on your preference. If focusing at the tip of the nose, feel the touch of the air as you breathe in and out… If focusing on the abdomen, feel the belly expanding on an inhalation and contracting on an exhalation.
- Breathing in, breathing out, experiencing each breath appearing and disappearing. Just breathing. And now gently withdraw awareness from the breath and shift to mindful inquiry.
- Mindful inquiry is an investigation into emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations that are driving your panic, anxieties, and fears, often beneath the surface of your awareness. There is a special and unique way of doing this practice that can foster the potential for deep understanding and insight.
- When you practice mindful inquiry, gently direct your attention into the bodily feeling of panic or fear itself. Allow yourself to bring nonjudgmental awareness into the experience of it, acknowledging whatever it feels like in the body and mind and letting it be.
- To begin this exploration you need to first check in with yourself and determine whether it feels safe or not. If you don’t feel safe, perhaps it is better to wait and try another time, and just stay with your breathing for now.
- If you are feeling safe, then bring awareness into the body and mind and allow yourself to acknowledge any physical sensations, emotions, or thoughts. Then, just let them be…without trying to analyze or figure them out.
- You may discover that within these feelings there’s a multitude of thoughts, emotions, or old memories that are fuelling your fears. When you begin to acknowledge what has not been acknowledged, the pathway of insight and understanding may arise. As you turn toward your emotions, they may show you what you are panicked, worried, mad, sad, or bewildered about.
- You may learn that the very resistance to unacknowledged emotions often causes more panic or fear and that learning to go with it, rather than fighting it, often diminishes them. When we say “go with it,” we mean that you allow and acknowledge whatever is within the mind and body. Just letting the waves of emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations go wherever they need to go just like the sky makes room for any weather.
- Now gently return to the breath, being mindful of breathing in and out…riding the waves of the breath.
- As you come to the end of this meditation, take a moment to congratulate yourself and take a moment to appreciate the safety and ease you may be feeling right now that you can bring into your day. By acknowledging your fears, you may open the possibility for deeper understanding, compassion, and peace. Before you get up, gently wiggle your fingers and toes and gradually open your eyes, being fully aware here and now.
- Send some loving-kindness your way. May I dwell in peace. May all beings dwell in peace.
3 Ways to Get Out of Panic Mode
- Notice what’s happening, instead of completely identifying with it.
- Practice mindfulness with others (together or virtually), so you can remember you’re not alone.
- Pause and take five deep breaths, any time you feel anxious or in a panic.