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3 Tips for Mindfulness Meditation When You're Anxious

It's the ultimate conundrum. Mindfulness meditation can reduce the effects of anxiety on your life and wellbeing, but practicing mindfulness meditation when you're anxious can seem impossible. After all, anxiety involves negative, racing thoughts--worries, what-ifs, and worst-case scenarios--that keep you trapped in your mind. How are you supposed to quiet your mind with mindfulness meditation when anxiety is relentlessly loud? If anxiety is preventing you from using this tool to reduce it, take heart: the practice is a skill that becomes stronger the more you use it. Here are three tips to make mindfulness meditation work for you when you're anxious.

Why Mindfulness Meditation Eases Anxiety

Mindfulness meditation, or less formally, mindfulness, is the practice of giving your present moment your full attention. Anxiety causes us to live anywhere but the present moment. We ruminate over things that have already happened and fret over what might happen in the future. The past might be a mere 30 seconds ago and the future could be a brief minute away, but they're still not the present moment.

To be sure, past, future, and our thoughts about them feel very immediate and very tangible to us. When fueled by anxiety, the mind blurs the line between past, present, and future so they seem like one, urgent unit. 

This is the very reason why mindfulness is so powerful. It anchors us in the actual, real present moment of our lives, the one we have some control over. Mindfulness doesn't change situations, but it allows us to shift our thoughts about them. Contrary to what anxiety makes us believe, we have the power to choose our focus. We can stay with anxious thoughts, or we can anchor ourselves in the reality of our moment. Mindfulness meditation empowers us to turn our attention away from anxiety and into something positive and pleasant right now. 

(You might be thinking, "Oh yeah, well what if there is a problem right now, in my present moment? How can mindfulness calm my anxiety then?" That is a common and legitimate concern. If you are interested in learning how mindfulness does work in this situation with a slight modification, please see "When Mindfulness Doesn't Calm Anxiety.")

3 Tips for Using Mindfulness Meditation When You're Anxious

Anxious, racing thoughts make it difficult to focus on anything else. It seems cruel that a recommendation for calming these worries is to do something that involves quieting the mind. The beauty of mindfulness meditation lies in the first tip. The other two are bonuses. 

  1. Mindfulness meditation isn't about quieting the mind. This is one of the most common and biggest misconceptions about mindfulness and meditation. We can't force the mind to be quiet, and in meditation, you don't have to pretend to try. The practice isn't about emptying your mind. It's about forming a new relationship with yourself, your thoughts, and your life. It's okay and natural to have other thoughts while you're engaged in mindful meditation. Simply begin to pay less attention to them and more attention to what's around you. (See tip two.).
  2. It's not only okay to be a beginner, it's desirable. Be kind and compassionate to yourself. So many of us (I was guilty of this at first), are hard on ourselves when we can't quiet our minds. This only fuels the struggle with anxious thoughts (remember the first tip: it's not about quieting the mind). This can lead to name-calling ("I'm a failure," "I'm ridiculous.") To change this, approach your practice with a beginner's mind. A beginner doesn't know what to expect. Without expectations of what we "should" be doing, we can stop berating ourselves when our thoughts wander. Instead, just allow your thoughts to come and go as they please while you continue to gently shift your attention to something in the present (your deep breathing, a beautiful sight, a calming sound, or a soothing smell, perhaps).
  3. Find what works for you. What image comes to mind when you hear or read the word "meditation?" Chances are, it's a serene monk or nun sitting on a hard floor or cushion, back completely straight and body still. That's a way to meditate, but it's not the only way. In fact, there is no such thing as a "right" or "wrong" way to practice mindfulness meditation. If sitting cross-legged on the floor hurts, lie down. If, like me, you fall asleep whenever you try to meditate lying down, try mindful movements like yoga, tai chi, or walking. Unless you're hurting yourself or someone else, you can't do it wrong. 

Mindfulness meditation, when practiced regularly (you get to define what that means for you), is a skill that allows you to shift away from anxious thoughts in any moment you choose to do so. Let these tips help you develop your practice. 

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2020, May 21). 3 Tips for Mindfulness Meditation When You're Anxious, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, May 28 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2020/5/3-tips-for-mindfulness-meditation-when-youre-anxious



Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and five critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She also speaks nationally about mental health. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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