Anxiety is a VERY common problem in our modern day and age, one that affects up to 5.5 million young people in the U.S. alone! From General Anxiety Disorder to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to Panic Disorder, the wide range of anxiety disorders surpass depression and affect as many as 40% of adults and 10% of teenagers in the country. Worse, the low treatment rates (1 in 5 teenagers and 2/3 of adults) means that many people live with anxiety every day.
Thankfully, there are simple tools to help you cope with anxiety. For example, as a new study from the University of Waterloo discovered, mindful meditation can do wonders to combat repetitive and anxious thoughts.
The study involved 82 participants, all of whom experienced anxiety on a regular basis. They were given a task that required sustained concentration, but were subjected to interruptions. Their off-task thoughts (wandering and anxious thoughts) were assessed.
Then they were assigned to either the control or meditation group, and the sustained concentration task was repeated. When the off-task thoughts were assessed, it was discovered that the mindful meditation group were less prone to being distracted and growing anxious as a result of the interruptions.
Not only did the meditation help to reduce distractions, but it also improved performance on the sustained concentration task, even during the interruptions. The focus of the participants shifted from an internal focus to a present-moment external world focus. This helped to enhance their ability to respond to their sustained concentration tasks even when facing things that had previously made them nervous.
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Meditation, specifically mindful meditation, engages the mind and helps to focus it on the present moment. For those with anxiety, it can help to block out the anxious thoughts. But, most important of all, it can reduce mind wandering.
According to Mengran Xu, PhD candidate and lead researcher for this study, “Mind wandering accounts for nearly half of any person’s daily stream of consciousness. For people with anxiety, repetitive off-task thoughts can negatively affect their ability to learn, to complete tasks, or even function safely.”
What this means is that a lot of the anxiety is experienced as a result of wandering thoughts. When you allow your mind to wander, it usually trends toward worries about the past or future. People suffer from anxiety because of concerns about potential problem as much as about real problems.
But if you can control your mind and stop it from wandering, you can prevent those anxious thoughts. You’ll keep your thoughts focused on your present moment or whatever activity you’re engaged in. Sustained concentration on the present moment can prevent your mind from wandering to the things that make you anxious.
Don’t sweat it if you’ve never had great results with meditation! It’s not some complicated mental discipline that takes years to master. Mindful meditation is simple and can be done by anyone. All it takes is some time and a willingness to give it a try.
Here is a basic mindful meditation you can use to keep your attention focused on the now:
Step 1: Get comfortable. Sit in a cool and quiet place, in a comfortable position on your bed, chair, or the floor. You don’t need a special place to be—just make sure you’re comfortable and in a calm environment.
Step 2: Focus. Many people like to focus on the flame of a candle, a beautiful picture, the sound of a specific song or soundtrack, or your breathing. It doesn’t matter what you focus on—all that matters is that you have something to keep your senses attuned to.
Step 3: Relax. Take deep breaths and stop worrying about whether or not you’re meditating correctly. Just let your body relax. Be in the moment. If thoughts come into your mind, don’t worry about it. Return as many times as necessary to the present moment. Use that focal point to keep your attention fixed on something, even when your thoughts wander.
And that’s IT! Mindful meditation isn’t some arcane discipline that requires blood, sweat, and tears. It’s the simple act of experiencing the present moment as it comes. With these three steps, you’ll be in the perfect state of mind and body to meditate. With just 10 minutes a day, as the Waterloo University study discovered, you can drastically reduce anxious thoughts and keep your mind from wandering!
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