Is Meditation The Best Thing For Your Anxiety?

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
I did not want to go to meditation class. I was dreading it. The decision to go was one I made in the final days of 2014 — but on the first Sunday of January, I really didn't want to do it. Still, it was a new year, and I was a new me. And, I wanted to see what it could do for me, if it could make me calmer, more focused, and more creative. So, an hour later there I was. Meditating.

Or, I was trying to. I closed my eyes and focused on my breath, but thoughts jumped out at me. What should I do when class is over? Is it too cold to walk to Whole Foods? What should I eat for lunch? It’s weird how this room is so plain, but the Buddha paraphernalia is tacky like a 7-year-old girl’s bedroom. It’s got to be intentional. Buddha seems kind of smug. I wonder if everyone has their eyes closed. Couldn’t someone just walk in the door? Couldn’t that someone just kill us? What should I eat for lunch?

Ten to 15 minutes in, though, everything started to slow down. It was as if my mind’s minutiae reserves were running low. Bored, I found my breath. Its rise and fall consoled me, and in its rhythm, I found it easier to focus. I realized that meditating didn't really mean doing nothing, like I had expected — it took focus and concentration. It was work. And, the reason I didn’t want to come that day wasn’t because I was lazy or cynical; it was because I was anxious. Then I wondered what I should eat for lunch.

Anxiety can be a tricky thing to pinpoint. It’s easy to recognize when you feel it like a knot in the stomach or a tightness in the chest, but it’s not always so obvious. Often it manifests as procrastination, perfectionism, or isolation. What are these but different forms of avoidance, which is a wonderfully maladaptive way to cope with anxiety? I do it all the time. But, avoidance prevents you from having to confront anything you find challenging.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
On the other hand, meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, is all about confrontation. It teaches you to let all thoughts — good, bad, neutral — come and go as they please. The goal is not to judge or react, but simply to acknowledge and accept. It's rooted in Buddhism, but your practice doesn't need to be Buddhist for you to reap its benefits.

Andy Puddicombe is founder and CEO of the entirely secular meditation app Headspace and a former Buddhist monk. He never saw his meditation as a religious undertaking, even when it was. “For me, it was much more about understanding the mind — discovering how to find a calmer, clearer aspect of the mind,” he says.

While meditation can hardly be considered mainstream, psychologists are beginning to use mindfulness techniques in their work with patients. Lizabeth Roemer, PhD, one of the authors of The Mindful Way Through Anxiety, uses them to treat anxiety, and she sees how meditation could be beneficial, too. “If people learn to pay attention with acceptance and kindness to the present moment through their meditation practice, and are able to apply this in their lives in ways that keep them engaged with what matters to them, then I think this can help with anxiety.”​

This idea is not a new one, but has recently started gaining momentum. Last year, JAMA Internal Medicine published a study that found meditation to be as effective as antidepressants in treating anxiety and depression. The findings are backed by brain scans from before and after people meditate. They show the brain is capable of building new cells and pathways — a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. Meditation weakens the part of the brain that makes us take things personally and strengthens the part that allows us to feel empathy. Put simply, meditation changes the brain for the better.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.

Though support for meditation is not always overwhelming, one thing is clear: It is a tool for managing anxiety that is underused. If Puddicombe has his way, that won't be the case for long. “Society as a whole is now beginning to really wake up to the benefits of meditation,” he says. “This is, in part, due to the increase in scientific research. To feel the benefits is one thing, but to be able to prove them scientifically has enabled us to get even the most skeptical individuals excited and enthused about giving it a go."

Giving it a go is actually easy when you consider how accessible and cheap meditation can be. Without any of the side effects (or costs) of prescription medication, there's no reason not to try. I first tried meditation to calm myself down, but that's not why I've continued to practice. It's become a microcosm of my life — a reminder that it's not how I feel about things that happen, but how I respond to them. And, that the only way around anxiety is through it.
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