How to Meditate When Anxiety Won't Let You Be Still

Do you know how to meditate when your anxiety won't let you be still? Recently, I wrote about mindfulness meditation for anxiety. Because meditation is so powerful and yet so frustrating, I'm returning to the topic of how to meditate to expand on it further--helping you to learn how to meditate despite anxiety. 

When you live with anxiety, being still doesn't come naturally; indeed, anxiety by its nature is agitation. It's restlessness. It's noise. It tears through mind and body like a tornado. It seems like cruel and unusual punishment that meditation, an approach to deep wellbeing that can quiet anxiety requires stillness. If you've shared this frustration, I have great news. There are aspects of meditation you might not know about, and it's possible to learn how to meditate even when anxiety won't let you be still.

I Didn't Learn How to Meditate for a Long Time Because of Anxiety

While I now meditate daily and spend time in quiet mindfulness as a way of life, this wasn't always the case. Years ago, anxiety had me perpetually agitated, and anxious thoughts raced through my mind without stopping. I knew about the potential of mediation to bring calm, and I tried it unsuccessfully many times. 

Because I enjoyed movement and yoga, I decided to attend a class that combined yoga and sitting meditation at a large local gym. The result felt like a disaster. Trying to sit in quiet stillness in a huge room jammed with people was probably not the wisest thing for someone who constantly felt scrutinized and feared being judged. My brain raced with negative thoughts as I sat there trying to quiet my mind, and I was so agitated I felt as though I would jump out of my own skin. I wanted to bolt, but I was on the side of the room opposite the door and a throng of what looked like peacefully meditating people blocked my path. I was mortified at the thought of disturbing them, so I endured with great discomfort, never to return again. 

I've learned a lot since that failed attempt--about meditation, myself, my anxiety, and how to break free from my anxiety. Meditation has become a regular part of my life, so I'd like to share with you some truths about meditation and tips for learning how to meditate despite anxiety. 

When Learning How to Meditate, You Need to Know Some Things

To help you develop a meditation practice, know these things:

  • The goal of meditation is not to empty your mind, for that is neither possible nor necessary to beat anxiety.
  • Meditation involves focused concentration on something other than anxiety.
  • Especially at first, meditation involves having thoughts--a lot of them.
  • Rather than trying to get rid of thoughts, in meditation we gradually learn to let them come and go, simply observing them without judging or sticking to them.

The bottom line is that you're not failing at meditation because you are anxious when you're doing it. For those of us with anxiety, that's normal. Of course, that doesn't mean you want to spend your time entertaining anxious thoughts. You want to begin to detach from them, to give yourself space to pay attention to something else. There are things you can do to make meditation more pleasant when you have anxiety.  

How to Meditate When Anxiety Has You Agitated 

If I had known of these tips when trying that group class years ago, perhaps I wouldn't have sat there fighting with myself, my anxious thoughts, and my desire to flee. Try these when learning how to meditate and keep those that work for you:

  • Let your thoughts exist, coming and going without interfering with them.
  • When you catch yourself stuck in a thought, simply tell yourself, "These are thoughts" and turn your attention elsewhere.
  • Tune in to your breath: Its sound, your body expanding and contracting, even say the words "breathing in" and "breathing out."
  • Involve your senses when you meditate and focus on a single sight, sound, smell, or sensation.
  • Use visualizations to gently replace thoughts, picturing something as simple as a glowing ball of color or as complex as your favorite place.
  • Light a candle and try to count the flickers.
  • Move rather than sit.
  • Play and sustain a note on an instrument or ring a bell occasionally.
  • Start short, even less than one minute at a time, and gradually increase the duration over time.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that mediation does not mean emptying your mind, and it doesn't even have to involve being still. The idea is to gently and repeatedly shift your attention away from the inevitable anxious thoughts and focus on something else. Over time, this becomes easier until it's almost second-nature and anxiety no longer bothers you. 

In the below video, I share one of my active meditations that helps me focus on something other than anxious thoughts. I invite you to tune in and then try it.

Do you know how to meditate in a way that works for you? Share your thoughts in the comments.

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2020, June 25). How to Meditate When Anxiety Won't Let You Be Still , HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, April 17 from

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Anxiety Asset
July, 4 2020 at 11:22 am

I thought I was alone in feeling that anxiety got in the way of my meditation! It feels quite discouraging to have the intent to meditate but then have the intention distracted by the very thing you want to rid yourself of in that moment. I find that meditation is just one of many tools one can use in scenarios managing anxiety.

Clay Grove
July, 1 2020 at 8:36 pm

Thanks for sharing reminded me of the zen tangles they taught in the mental ward....

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