What Meditation Does To The Brain and How it Can Help Ease Anxiety
How can meditation affect anxiety? If you find yourself struggling with it, you’re not alone. Aside from Ukraine for obvious reasons, the United States comes in second place among the top 10 countries with the highest rates of anxiety in the world. Let’s talk about what meditation does to the brain!
Of all of the mental health issues Americans suffer from, anxiety is the most common in the U.S. An astounding 40 Million adults in the US suffer from anxiety with the age group between 30-44 years old being those with the highest sufferers.
Anxiety is the #1 mental health problem in the U.S.
So what is causing our anxiety and what can we do to mitigate it?
Living without Fear
All of us know people we deem “born worriers,” but their reality is much more debilitating than that label describes. Being in a state of chronic anxiety can severely limit their daily activity.
You probably know already if you are one of the “worry warts.” In fact, if you have chronic anxiety, even the smallest thing can trigger it. You find yourself with fearful thoughts about finances, family, your health, and what’s happening around the world or at work. Some days you’d rather hide under the covers.
Unless we encounter a serious threat to our survival, the usefulness of fear is minimal in daily life, particularly in the form of anxiety. The most ancient and primitive part of our brains, the amygdala, is physiologically designed to trigger our fight-flight-freeze response in the face of a life-threatening event. However, for the most part, fear is a negative emotion unless you’re actually facing a serious threat and need to fight or flee from that threat.
Any stressful event can produce short-term anxiety in almost everyone. But the issue arises because our brains are not capable of distinguishing the actual threat or difference between an actual life-threatening event and an unexpected stressor of daily life. As a result, being cut off on the freeway, having an argument with our spouse, being fired unexpectedly, or even our seemingly mundane daily stressors automatically kick this fight-flight-freeze response into high gear.
The body revs up as if it is in actual life-threatening danger and when it does, our physiology naturally kicks in right along with it. Once that response is triggered, it can sometimes take hours for our physiology to settle back down to homeostasis. Then imagine that during this timeframe, you experience yet another stressor. You then essentially have one stressful event on top of another preventing your physiology from actually settling down perhaps even all day long. It’s easy to see how anxiety then can become a chronic condition and almost impossible to shut off.
Why We Worry
The first thing to realize is that what’s happening, in reality, isn’t what’s actually worrying you, but rather it’s your fixed habitual patterns of mind that cause you to respond to everything with anxiety. Second, see if you can look rationally at the anxiety response and concede that you’re not improving it by feeling anxious. This seems obvious to those who aren’t “worry warts” but somewhere inside, many “born worriers” believe they are actually taking care of situations that others are overlooking, like whether they remembered to lock the house or turn the oven off.
Any trigger can provoke worry, so the question is how to prevent this from happening.
There are many theories about what causes chronic anxiety, and they are as diverse as explanations for depression. In general, anxiety can be defined as living in the future and depression as living in the past. The key to releasing both of these afflictions is present-moment awareness. Instead of debating the origin of your anxiety, it’s more impactful to consider how to retrain your brain and your automatic response so that your worry subsides and is replaced by a responsive attitude as opposed to a reactive one.
Unfortunately, the standard medical advice is to take medication (usually some form of tranquilizer), augmented by talking to a therapist. With over 20% of the US population aged 45-65 taking anti-anxiety medications, it’s long past due for us to begin to explore other options for our mental health care now more than ever.
Self-care has other tools, such as meditation, diet, sleep, massage, and exercise that you can pursue on your own.
This is where we will really dive into what meditation does to the brain. One aspect of anxiety is racing thoughts that won’t go away. Meditation helps with this part of the problem by quieting the overactive mind.
The silence is always there. We are the ones who fill it with incessant and never-ending chatter.
– Maggie Kelly
Instead of buying into your fearful thoughts, you can start identifying with the silence that exists between every mental action. Through regular meditation practice, you begin to experience that you are not your thoughts and feelings. You are simply the thinker of your thoughts. You can detach yourself from these to rest in your own being by becoming a witness to your thoughts instead of engaging in them and allowing them to take you down the long and winding road of anxiety. This involves remaining centered and present. If a thought or outside trigger pulls you off center, your meditation practice allows you to return back to the present moment again and again.
Meditation allows you to enjoy the peace of present-moment awareness. When your mind is fully engaged in the here and now, it can’t possibly be worrying about the future. More than this, cultivating present-moment awareness through meditation opens you up to the fullness your life has to offer.
Several comprehensive scientific studies have been performed with long and short-term meditators over the past decade. The overall conclusion is that practicing mindfulness or meditation produces beneficial results, with a substantial improvement in areas like negative personality traits, anxiety, and stress.
Researchers discovered that the anxiety-reducing benefits from mindfulness translate across a wide range of conditions because when someone learns mindfulness, they learn how to work with difficult and stressful situations.
It’s no surprise that all mental activity has a direct physical correlation in the brain, and this aspect has been studied as well in relation to anxiety. Chronic worriers display increased reactivity in the amygdala, that area of the brain associated with regulating emotions, including fear. Neuroscientists at Stanford University found that people who practiced mindfulness meditation for eight weeks were more able to turn down the reactivity of this area. Other researchers from Harvard found that mindfulness can physically reduce the number of neurons in this fear-triggering part of the brain.
The long and short of it is that a regular meditation practice allows your brain to develop new pathways besides the old worry grooves. It literally is a practice of retraining your brain so your mind begins to experience itself without being overtaken by anxious thoughts.
Are you ready to retrain your brain as it confronts stress and anxiety? Join us for our Introduction to Meditation course online or in person at Satsang House Meditation and Spiritual Center or consider meeting with Spiritual Life Coach, Meditation Instructor, and Mentor Maggie Kelly for a complimentary consultation and let’s get started on settling your anxiety and restoring you to a sense of peace!