How mindfulness meditation and deep breathing can help manage anxiety
For many, the financial stressors, relationship stressors, and limitations on mobility brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to increased anxiety and frustration.
Meditation—which can be practiced at home, for free—can help relieve stress and calm spiraling thoughts, says resident physician Kyle Street, DO, of Rowan University Department of Psychiatry.
“Mindfulness meditation is a simple practice that helps strengthen the mind’s ability to stay focused on what is happening, meeting the present moment with kindness and non-reactivity,” says Dr. Street. “Ongoing practice can help us respond in a calmer manner to negative thoughts and lead us to make more appropriate decisions not based on fear.”
Some research suggests that meditation may physically change the brain and body.
Research has shown mindfulness meditation can have some surprising benefits. One study conducted by a Harvard-affiliated team out of Massachusetts General Hospital found meditation can alter the makeup of the brain.
During the eight-week study, researchers took before-and-after MRI brain images of a group of people who had never meditated before. One group of participants spent an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises while the control group did not perform any meditation.
At the close of the study, those who had meditated showed increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.
“This study is compelling because it shows the potential effects of meditation on human brain structure, which supports the theory that we can literally change our brains and by extension our minds,” says Dr. Street. “Moreover, these findings are contrary to previously held core beliefs in the field of neuroscience that the brain stops changing after the age of 25.”
Step 1: Find your quiet place
The basics of mindfulness meditation are not complicated. The first step is to find a quiet and comfortable place to sit or lie down. This can be anywhere you like from inside your house to the park, suggests Dr. Street.
Step 2: Practice breath focus
After finding a peaceful location, the second step is to focus your breath. This means bringing your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and out of your lungs.
Take 10 long breaths, about five seconds each. After this consciously relax your body while continuing to breathe deeply, but at your natural pace. Instead of expanding and collapsing your chest, contract and expand your stomach.
This controlled breathing can assist you in disengaging from distracting thoughts and sensations. According to Dr. Street, deep breathing encourages full oxygen exchange, which can lower heart rate and blood pressure.
Step 3: Observe and redirect your thoughts
The final step is to observe thoughts that take your focus away. It’s important to remember that ‘thoughts’ are not an indication of poor meditation but actually correct meditation. Thinking on the other hand can be disruptive to effective meditation.
Having thoughts spontaneously arise is to be expected. Continuing to follow the thought process is ‘thinking’, which you want to try to avoid, says Dr. Street. When thoughts are detected, observe them but do not get involved with them.
“As you notice them and bring your focus back to meditation, familiarize yourself with these thoughts while not getting involved,” says Dr. Street. “This process can be therapeutic, and you may notice an improved attitude and reduced anxiety over time.”
Depending on what’s happening in your life on a given day, it may be harder or easier to avoid following your thoughts. Meditation can still be calming even on days when you are less focused—and on these days, try to avoid judging your level of focus.
Tell yourself that you are doing the best you can.
Make it a habit.
To continually reap the benefits, make mindfulness meditation a part of your daily life. Creating a routine, such as using the same location and time every day, will help establish meditation as a habit.
“Ideally you should aim to meditate for at least 15-20 minutes per day,” says Dr. Street. “Now that you have another tool to tackle stress and anxiety in your life, you can start experiencing its surprising benefits on body and mind.”