In the UK this year, 16 million people will experience mental illness. The most common mental health problem in England is anxiety, and women are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders as men. According to Stephen Buckley, head of information at mental health charity Mind, in England, around one in six people report experiencing anxiety and depression in any given week. And with the NHS pushed to overspending as much as £141m a year as a result of underfunding, staff shortages and the ever rising demand for care, the British Medical Association recently found that patients with severe mental illness are facing waiting times of up to two years for treatment. So if you’re struggling with anxiety, what can you do to ease your symptoms right now?
First things first, what is anxiety? Not to be confused with stress (which shares many of the same symptoms), anxiety is a manifestation of a number of mental health conditions which include generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder phobias like agoraphobia and claustrophobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety. "The exact causes of anxiety are not known and triggers can vary from person to person," Buckley tells me. "Sometimes there’s no obvious cause but rather a combination of such things as past and present life events, stress, loss, trauma, side-effects of medication, diet as well as genetic factors." The psychological and physical symptoms of anxiety are specific to each and every sufferer, but according to NHS guidelines, symptoms can include feeling restless or worried, trouble concentrating or sleeping, headaches, muscle tension, dizziness and heart palpitations.
CEO of Anxiety UK, Nicky Lidbetter adds: "There is no specific profile for someone who suffers anxiety; it can affect many people at different stages of their lives. Often, people can develop anxiety after dealing with a prolonged period of 'stress' which may include a demanding job, relationship problems or money troubles. For other people who have anxiety there is no specific trigger."
London’s leading sound meditation teacher, "King Gong" Leo Cosendai tells me that he experienced anxiety from a young age. "It lasted quite a few years," he says. "I didn’t know what it was, didn’t feel like sharing it with my friends or family. It kind of got better when I came across music, which helped me for a little while, but I quickly realised that it wasn’t enough."
His anxiety, and the panic attacks which came with it, were occurring "too often, way too often," and ultimately limiting his lifestyle. "I realised that I couldn’t go on like that because I was having to do things in a certain way to feel okay," he reflects. Then he met his partner, who took him to his first gong bath meditation. "It was a revelation," he remembers. "I don’t know where I went — I must have fallen asleep — but when I woke up I felt incredible, like I never had."
Meditation is often touted as a "solution" to anxiety. As meditation app Headspace notes: "Anxiety is a cognitive state connected to an inability to regulate emotions. But research shows that a consistent meditation practice reprograms neural pathways in the brain and, therefore, improves our ability to regulate emotions." But meditation can be challenging, and the rigorous discipline underlying it can feel overwhelming for anxiety sufferers.
Sound meditation, Cosendai says, is "making meditation accessible". Where traditional meditation requires a constant effort to "stay present", sound baths are passive. The sounds and vibrations lead the practitioner. "It’s very passive and you get out of your head: something that’s very difficult to do in standard mindfulness," Cosendai notes. "I think that mindfulness should be a byproduct of an experience rather than a practice in itself."
Sound meditation is centuries old but in recent years, it has been co-opted by the "wellness" movement. Cosendai performs up to 10 sound meditations every week across London. He claims that his sound baths instil a handful of benefits including "lateral thinking, self-awareness and mental cognition, efficient and compassionate communication, increased self-confidence and resilience, enhanced ability to listen and pay greater attention to details and sustained states of calmness."
Having experienced a few sound baths over the years, I have found effects vary from snooze-inducing lullaby to full-on trance. "What people go through during the sessions is almost akin to psychedelics," Cosendai says. But as I lie down on a DIY bed made up of a yoga mat, blankets and cushions, with a silk eye cushion in a heated room at subterranean fitness space The Refinery E9, tripping couldn’t be further from my mind. Cosendai switches off the lights and begins to play the vast selection of instruments laid out before him: an enormous stand-mounted gong; crystal singing bowls; a sprinkling of chimes and bells. I drift off into a blissed-out state halfway between sleep and wakefulness. Five minutes morph improbably into an hour and it's over before it has begun. I wander home in a contented haze, and for the few days that follow, my default "fight or flight" mindset fades.
"There is a direct impact when you’re exposed to the tones of gongs and crystal bowls and Tibetan bowls and other instruments," Cosendai explains. "So when you’re exposed to those tones, frequencies and vibrations, your mind is altered and your brain is confused. And it’s like a workout for your nervous system. You get a lot of crescendos, a lot of ups and downs, and when the crescendos are high in terms of volume and intensity, it’s really making your nervous system work. So you’re almost creating a stress response to relax it."
Quite why sound meditation "works" continues to be debated by the alternative medicine community, but a 2016 study entitled "Effects of Singing Bowl Sound Meditation on Mood, Tension, and Well-being: An Observational Study" found that "sound meditation participants reported significantly less tension, anger, fatigue, and depressed mood," adding that "Tibetan singing bowl meditation may be a feasible low-cost low technology intervention for reducing feelings of tension, anxiety, and depression, and increasing spiritual well-being."
Priced around £20-£30 for 1.5 hours, sound baths are neither cheap nor physically accessible for all. Luckily, Leo Cosendai has an app — and audiobook — for that. Third Ear is "a new type of mindfulness to inspire and evoke the calm in us".
The app offers a range of sound meditations, from one-minute mini sessions to 45-minute sound baths, which can be used to snatch moments of calm anywhere from home to a busy commute. Third Ear also offers active breathwork exercises — potentially one of the most potent tools on the app for anxiety sufferers – which use a similar mechanic to NHS-recommended anti-anxiety apps like Chill Panda and Stress & Anxiety Companion. "Breathing exercises can help you manage some symptoms of anxiety and feel more in control," Buckley notes.
There is no singular "solution" for anxiety, and the medical community has yet to endorse sound meditation. As Buckley makes clear, "living with anxiety can be very difficult and there are things you can try to help but remember, what works for one person may not work for another." The NHS advises cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), applied relaxation, antidepressants, beta blockers and pregabalin (always consult your GP before beginning any course of medication), along with regular exercise, cutting down on smoking and caffeine, and getting a solid amount of sleep. Anxiety UK offers CBT, counselling and clinical hypnotherapy. "All of these therapies have different benefits to clients and can work to help reduce the feelings of anxiety that individuals experience," Lidbetter notes. But where many of these pathways to recovery require long waiting times and saintly patience, sound meditation is easy, immediate, and doesn’t come with a long list of side-effects. Who knows, maybe you’ll become a gongvert.