Meditation Can Keep Your Anxiety From Going Off The Rails

Sweaty palms and a nervous stomach before standing up to give a presentation to a group of clients, or prior to a potentially life changing job interview is normal.

Waking up at night to worry about things that are unlikely to happen, or feeling anxious throughout the day without being able to pinpoint any real reason may indicate that you’re suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

Monk Meditating

The power of meditation has been proven by studying the brain waves of monks.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

People with GAD worry about many of the same things that most people do:  maintaining relationships with friends and family, losing a job when the company downsizes, and having enough money to pay the monthly bills. A person with GAD takes ‘normal’ worrying up a notch.  People with GAD have intense, chronic anxiety.  They have a tendency to exaggerate their problems, worry uncontrollably, and anticipate the worst case scenario.  Often their worries are unspecific.

And the number of people suffering from GAD continues to rise. Researchers from ComPsych Corporation recently compiled data to identify the top 10 health problems of employees.  Anxiety moved up to number seven on the list with 33 percent of employees across all industries indicating that they felt tense or anxious much of the time. Twenty four percent frequently worry about their financial situation and another 16 percent always worry about money.

Chronic, unproductive worrying can take a toll on your job, your relationships and your health. Behaviors like overeating, drinking too much alcohol, smoking, and using recreational drugs are often the result of uncontrolled anxiety.

What You Can Learn From Monks

A team of researchers anxious to learn what impact, if any, meditation has on the brain, put a group of prominent Buddhist monks under MRI machines to trace blood flow to the brain during meditation.  The results were staggering.  The results of the brain scans showed that years of meditation had actually altered the structure of the monks’ brains.

The study also showed that the meditation activated the monks’ brains in a way that was significantly different than it did in a group of non-meditating volunteers.  The MRI scan showed not only a greater activation of gamma waves in the monks’ brains, but the waves were also more organized and coordinated than in the volunteers.

The study concluded that through meditation the monks had an expanded capacity for happiness, reduced tendency towards negativity, an increased sense of empathy and compassion, and a greater sense of harmony between themselves and the world.

A meditation researcher and neuroscientist with the project, Richard J. Davidson, told the Washington Post that long term practitioners of meditation showed brain activation on a scale never before seen. Davidson said, “Their mental practice is having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practice will enhance performance.”

“What we found is that the trained mind, or brain, is physically different from the untrained one,” he said. In time, “we’ll be able to better understand the potential importance of this kind of mental training and increase the likelihood that it will be taken seriously.”

Researchers have been looking at the ways meditation influences the brain for years. A much earlier study conducted in 1992 by the Massachusetts University Medical School Department of Medicine, sought to determine the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation on patients with anxiety disorders.

Twenty-two students diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder participated in a meditation-based stress reduction and relaxation program. Assessments, including self-ratings and therapists’ ratings were gathered weekly before and during the program and for a three month follow-up period.

Significant reductions in anxiety and depression were reported for 20 of the students.  The number of participants experiencing panic symptoms was also substantially reduced.   Researchers made the following conclusion: A group mindfulness meditation training program can effectively reduce symptoms of anxiety and panic and can help maintain these reductions in patients with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or panic disorder with agoraphobia.

Train Your Brain

The evidence showing a direct link between meditation and a greater sense of overall well-being is compelling.  Most of us don’t have hours to spend in meditation like the monks do, but dedicating a few minutes each day to mindfulness training can reduce our anxiety and improve our health.

Find a quiet spot each day where you can sit and focus on nothing other than your own breath. Work on keeping your thoughts centered on your breathing.  If you find your thoughts begin to dart around, gently pull them back to your breath.

Over time, as you practice, you’ll be able to increase the length of time you spend focusing on a single object or thought.  The non-meditating volunteers in the monk study maintained an average thought for 2.6 seconds. One meditation practicing monk was able to maintain a constant visual for 723 seconds which proves it is a learned behavior and one that is worth taking a few minutes a day to acquire.

What meditation strategies do you use to deal with anxiety?

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