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 disorder 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 some practices you can turn to as you begin to right your ship.
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 to bring a focus that’s much more concentrated and centered, so narrower, on breathing in one region of our bodies—the breath of the belly, or the chest, or the nostrils, or anywhere that the breath makes itself known, and keeping that more concentrated focus.
- Bring your attention to your body. move out to become aware of sensations in the body as a whole, sitting with the whole body, the whole breath, once again we move back to wider and spacious container of attention for our experience.
Mindfulness is not a panacea. It’s not the right choice for everyone. But, according to some research, when you can create a little 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.
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.
“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.”
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-judgementally,” 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 through mindfulness, but you can change your response to your situation.
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.
MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is a specific kind of mindfulness practice that addresses the stresses of everyday life and has been shown to improve mental and physical health. The 8-week program incorporates mindfulness practices that 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.
Pause: Connect with your breath
The Science of Mindfulness for Anxiety
In 1992, Zindel Segal, John Teasdale, and Mark Williams collaborated to create an eight-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.
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.
Mindfulness 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 two-hour weekly 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.”
A Simple Meditation for Anxiety:
The Three-Minute Breathing Space is one of the most popular practices in the 8-week MBCT program. It allows you to shift your attention away from automatic, multitasking patterns of thought to help you get unstuck. It invites you to bring attention to your experience in a broader, more open manner that isn’t involved in selecting, choosing, or evaluating, but simply becoming aware of your thoughts and feelings, your breath in various regions of the body, and finally, sensations throughout the entire body.
The Three-Minute Breathing Space Meditation:
There are three steps to the practice:
- Attend to what is. The first step invites attending broadly to one’s experience, noting it, but without the need to change what you’re observing.
- Focus on the breath. The second step narrows the field of attention to a single, pointed focus on the breath in the body.
- Attend to the body. The third step widens attention again to include the body as a whole and any sensations that are present.
“We wanted to create a sort of choreography of awareness that emphasized shifting attention, checking in, and moving on,” says Segal. Accordingly, each step of the Three-Minute Breathing Space is roughly one minute in length. “Perhaps because of this flexibility and real-world focus, the Three-Minute Breathing Space is one of the most durable practices utilized by participants well after MBCT has ended,” Zindel explains.
To explore exactly what is going on with your attention when you practice the 3MBS, please read “Unpacking the Three-Minute Breathing Space.”
4 Ways to Calm Anxiety With Mindfulness:
- Explore your breath: Is it shallow and choppy, or long and smooth? Calm the rush of panic to your body with this simple breathing practice.
- Get out of your head and into your body. Try these 11 ways to engage your senses
- Explore your attitude. By attending to these ten mindful attitudes for decreasing anxiety, you can support your mindfulness practice and help it flourish.
- Be kind to yourself when you’re feeling too anxious to meditate (it happens). Consider these informal practices instead.
Three Meditations for Anxiety
Practice #1: A Simple Meditation to Overcome Anxiety
By Zindel Segal
People often stumble over the concept of acceptance as an approach for dealing with difficult emotions and mind states. In mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (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.
By accepting unpleasant experiences, we can shift our attention to opening up to them. Thus, “I should be strong enough” shifts to “Ah, fear is here,” or “Judgment is present.”
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.
Bringing attention/awareness to the sensations that accompany difficult experiences offers the possibility of learning to relate differently to such experiences in each moment. In time, this practice of working through the body may allow people to realize, through their own experiential practice, that they can allow unpleasant experiences and still be okay.
Practice #2: A Meditation for Anxiety and Stress
Give yourself about thirty minutes for this mindfulness practice from MBSR expert, Bob Stahl. 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.
A Meditation for Working with Anxiety and Stress
MBSR teacher Bob Stahl leads you through this meditation combining breath awareness, the body scan, and mindfulness of thoughts, so you can explore sources of stress and anxiety.
- Take a moment to thank yourself for being here — for taking this time to be present, to go inside, into your own lives.
- 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 our 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, achy-ness, 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 isolation. 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.
Practice #3: A Guided Meditation for Anxious Emotions
“Because this practice involves intentionally exploring the experience of anxiety, it can be challenging. Before you do this practice, please take a little time to consider whether you’re feeling up to it, listening to your inner voice to determine whether it feels right for you at this time. Consider doing your first practice when you feel safe and curious and have the energy and time to explore your anxiety more deeply. If now is not the time, be sure to return to this practice later, when you feel willing to take it on.” —Bob Stahl, Ph.D.
A Meditation for Anxious Emotions
A guided 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.
More Meditations for anxiety:
How to Stop a Panic Attack
A great many people who suffer with panic attacks experience feeling as though they are losing control and going crazy. Some people 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.
Try This Meditation for Investigating Panic Attacks
By Bob Stahl
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 breath in and coolness as you breath 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 behind 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 Guided 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.
A Meditation for Investigating Panic Attacks
A mindful inquiry practice from Bob Stahl.
- First, thank yourself for taking 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.
- Just living life, one inhalation and one exhalation at a time. 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 feel into and acknowledge any physical sensations, emotions, or thoughts and 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 fueling 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 returning to the breath and 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 thank 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 here and now.
- Send some loving-kindness your way. May I dwell in peace. May all beings dwell in peace.
Three Ways to Get Out of Panic Mode
Sometimes it suffices simply to pause and take deep breaths, expanding the inbreath and slowing the outbreath—a technique that helps during 2 a.m. flopsweats.
—Barbara Graham, noted essayist and author
- Notice what’s happening, instead of completely identifying with it.
- Practice mindfulness with others, so you can remember you’re not alone.
- Pause and take 5 deep breaths, any time you feel anxious or in a panic.
Read More About Panic Attacks
explore more mindfulness resources
As is typical for mindfulness-based interventions, no overarching body governs MBCT, but a number of very qualified senior teachers have taken it on since the program was founded, and centers in Toronto, the UK, and San Diego offer professional training and certification.
- Centre for Mindfulness Studies, Toronto
- UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness
- Oxford Centre for Mindfulness, UK