Using Meditation to Relieve Stress and Help with Anxiety (Part 1 of 2)

Using Meditation to Relieve Stress and Help with Anxiety (Part 1 of 2)

More and more of us are turning to meditation to relieve stress caused by our high-paced tech-enabled lifestyles. It is becoming a common practice to use meditation to deal with fears of the unknown, the uncontrollable and the uncertain. Such interest in meditation has attracted the curiosity of many researchers who have found evidence to confirm the beneficial effects of meditation on mental health.

What is Meditation?

Meditation is the practice of being aware of what is going on within and around us. It is akin to listening with the whole body. In a position of sitting, walking, or laying quietly, we begin by focusing on breath. As we breathe, we open our senses to hearing, smelling, seeing and feeling what is being experienced right now. Being present means noticing our breath, but also noticing the plane passing in the sky, the dog barking, the birds chirping, and the leaves of trees blowing in the wind.

How does meditation work?

When practiced over time meditation builds strength from the inside out and is a tool which is always available. Anxiety drugs offer a chemical quick fix to the person who feels anxious though it can be a needed first step in some cases. Meditation on the other hand builds intrinsic coping skills, entailing a richer, more effective process that creates new neural pathways and connections in the brain. These changes to the physical brain are then more permanent and affect our ability to control and regulate our stress, mood, and physical health. (To read more about studies on how meditation changes brain structure click here) When we are meditating we notice our thoughts appear as thoughts, and our tendency to automatically entertain them and the feelings they carry. This is what the Buddhists call the “monkey mind”. The monkey mind is a chain of relatively disconnected thoughts which jump from one to another without awareness. For example, a meditator would become aware of the following chain of thoughts:

"What are we going to have for dinner today?... I am terrible at planning meals... Remember those meals mom used to make after school?...Ah, school, I never liked school!... I enjoyed spending time with my friend Laura though.... What’s Laura up to these days?... I wish I had a best friend like her nowadays!. But what I really want is to be in a good relationship. What am I looking for in a partner anyway? Someone to go to Italy with. Ah, Italy...”

The monkey mind is our default mind when we have not trained ourselves to be aware of what and how we think. When we are on auto-pilot we tend to feel that our thoughts are running our life. We cannot see that we actually have a choice over what we think or feel, or even that we can choose to believe our thoughts or not believe our thoughts altogether. Habitual thoughts can lead to high levels of stress and anxiety and overwhelm us.

It is possible to learn to choose more often than not the types of thoughts we give permission to linger in our minds. One way to do this is through the practice of awareness and letting go of our thoughts during meditation. In my next post, I’ll share how we can take our meditation practice into our everyday lives to bring a sense of peace and joy to our most dreaded tasks, and also how meditation changes the way we respond to difficult situations.

Eva Malia is a licensed mental health counselor and works with clients on anxiety and meditation in her private practice. To schedule a time to work with Ms. Malia, fill out this inquiry form.