Anxiety likes to show up at two specific times: when you're lost in thought over something that's already happened and when you fret over something that might happen. It rarely rears its head when you're in sync with what's happening in real time. That's because if you're present to the here and now, all your mental and emotional resources are consumed with the matter at hand, not mired in the past or inventing “what ifs.”
Meditation is one way to bring you into the present moment and away from engaging rampant thinking. Many meditation styles encourage you to this by inviting you to direct your attention to, for example, your breath or surrounding sounds—things that are actually happening. Or they might encourage you to repeat a word or mantra—anchors to the present moment.
Mindfulness meditation is particularly good at this. Recent research suggests that just one hour of it could have lasting effects on reducing anxiety for up to one week. A study from Michigan Technological University showed it might offer adults with mild to moderate anxiety cardiovascular and psychological benefits. To be sure, the study, presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology conference in April, was very small and has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Specifically, after 60 minutes of meditation, study participants had reduced resting heart rates. And up to one week later they said they felt less anxious than before they meditated.
Here are three simple meditation exercises based on mindfulness. Even if you don't have anxiety they can help you relax and let go. To see which works best for you, try all of them. You don't have to be in a quiet space or seated to do them—but if it's your first time it will help.
Start with 10-minute sessions, and build up to 60 minutes. Even 10 minutes will help, especially if you do it every day.
Once you get the hang of them, use each (or your favorite) as a tool, no matter the din or if you're sitting down: in a crowded airport, during an intense meeting, waiting on hold for your medical results—anytime you're in a situation that makes you feel stressed.
- Inhale and notice which, if any, part of your torso expands. Exhale, feeling your torso naturally contract. Do this several times, even up to several minutes. You will likely feel your breath become longer and more rhythmic.
- Inhale, generating your breath by expanding the lower part of your torso then the upper part. Exhale, feeling your torso contract. Allow your breath to become (or continue to be) long and rhythmic.
- Keep your attention on your breath, repeating the pattern you have attained.
2. Phrase repetition (mantra-like meditation)
Mantra meditation usually uses a true Sanskrit mantra (Om or Soham, for example), which has a vibrational quality; it's not just a phrase that could be said in English. A guru often selects a mantra for the practitioner based on that person's individual constitution and needs. But you can still derive benefits by picking any word or phrase of your own.
- Choose a word or short phrase that speaks to you. It could be as simple as “love” or “calm,” or something you aspire to, such as “I am strong.”
- Inhale naturally. Exhale naturally, repeating your mantra to yourself. Alternatively, You can inhale, repeating the mantra to yourself, then exhale.
3. Body awareness
- Bring your attention to your feet. If you're standing, feel the connection between one foot (or even each toe on that foot, one at a time, and then move progressively through the parts of your foot) and the surface beneath. If you're lying down, progressively draw your attention to each toe of one foot and move up through your foot (ball, the arch, heel, etc.).
- Repeat this progressive awareness on your other foot, and then follow the same pattern all the way up through your body.
Journalist and yoga teacher Mitra Malek regularly creates content for wellness-focused outlets, including Yoga Journal, where she was an editor. Learn more at mitramalek.com.