Guided meditations help take some of the stress out of regular meditation, as they show listeners the way. So, if you find it challenging to sit quietly with your thoughts, but you’ve been hoping to learn how to relax your mind and relieve anxiety, guided meditation can help. Eager to learn more? Keep reading to uncover the benefits of meditation, the ideal meditation length, and more.
Does meditation really help anxiety?
Meditation may be viewed as a woo-woo practice by some, but in reality, it’s a powerful tool to help relieve anxiety. The reason? It forces you to tune into your body and mind, which can help you identify why you’re feeling anxious in the first place, says Jeff Warren, meditation expert and author of “The Daily Trip” on the Calm mindfulness app.
“Often we don’t realize it—we think being low-level stressed is the norm,” Warren says. “We’re constantly worrying about the future, our bodies constantly agitated, not sleeping well—these are all different ways that anxiety can present itself. We imagine this is just how our life is.”
While it’s normal to feel stressed from time to time, experiencing perpetual nervousness is not. Thankfully, making time for mindfulness techniques like meditation for anxiety (such as a full-body scan) can nudge you to confront how you’re physically and mentally feeling, which can help relieve anxiety in the process.
“We can use mindfulness to start to notice the uncomfortable feelings in our body and the looping anxious persistent thoughts in our mind,” Warren says. “From this place of greater awareness, we now have a bit more space to make an intervention.”
For example, perhaps you’re feeling anxious about an impending date. During a full-body scan, you notice that you’re holding tension in your shoulders and neck. Leaning into that awareness, you may allow yourself to fully unclench and relax. The physical sensation of doing so can help to ease your mind, providing more space to contemplate what it is you’re feeling so rigid about in the first place. From there, you can determine your next move. Is this bout of anxiety a gut feeling to cancel or are you simply nervous about how things could shift as a result of going out?
The science behind meditation for anxiety
“Practicing mindfulness meditation has a long history of being an effective way to reduce stress levels,” says Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, a family therapist, psychiatrist, and chief medical officer at Lifestance Health. “And many people use it as a tool for their overall mental health.” While the topic is still being studied, there are a number of reports that highlight the benefits of meditation.
Curious how long should you meditate to get rid of anxiety? A study published in JAMA Psychiatry compared patients who took an eight-week mindfulness meditation program to patients who took the anxiety-drug Escitalopram, the generic name for the widely prescribed anti-anxiety medication Lexapro. The study found that both methods worked equally well. After eight weeks, both groups showed about a 30-percent reduction in their overall symptoms.
It’s worth mentioning, though, that those results were based on a big-time commitment, which may not work for everyone. The study consisted of 276 adults diagnosed with untreated anxiety disorders split into two randomized groups. One group received a standard 10 to 20-milligram daily dose of Escitalopram, while the other group was assigned to weekly 2.5-hour mindfulness classes that used an approach called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), plus a one-day-long weekend class and 45-minute daily home practices.
Participants in the meditation group learned several mindfulness techniques like body scanning, where attention is focused on one part of the body at a time, along with mindful movement and awareness of breath.
How long does it take for meditation to help anxiety?
While 2.5-hour meditation classes, plus daily home-based practice, and a day-long weekend class were shown to act similarly to a dose of Lexapro, shorter meditation durations can still be beneficial.
According to a study published in the Journal of American College Health, researchers found that “five to 12 minutes of daily mindfulness meditation is associated with decreased stress and anxiety, and increased mindfulness with greater changes observed following more minutes of meditation.”
This is particularly great news because many meditation apps offer a variety of guided meditations spanning between a minute and an hour, with several falling in the five- to 12-minute range. While all of these meditation durations can be helpful in the moment, Warren points out that even taking just five seconds to stop and assess yourself is useful.
“Taking a moment to notice that you’re acting like a stress case, deliberately taking a deep breath, shaking out your limbs, maybe putting a hand on your belly, exhaling, feeling your feet on the ground—just that can help interrupt some doomsday cycle of rumination,” Warren says. “The more often you do this, the more effective it can be. That’s why people string together those five seconds into one minute, five minutes, 10 minutes.”
And here’s the thing: Warren says that, when it comes to finding an effective duration of meditation, it all boils down to what works best for you. “Some people find longer meditations harder to sustain, and that’s fine; others find they really only sink into the presence and calm after 10 minutes or so,” he says. “You have to play it out.”
Can meditation reverse anxiety?
Having an anxiety disorder is challenging, and it takes work to stay on top of your mental health. That’s why it’s good to have reasonable expectations when it comes to treatments, says Dr. Patel-Dunn. Don’t expect to see your symptoms completely disappear with the use of medication or meditation, she says, but what you can expect is for them to lessen your everyday stress.
Mediation for anxiety can help you identify your stressors and triggers, which can help you rework your mindset and your behavior as a result. That said, mediation isn’t a guaranteed solution for anxiety. “When I’ve had more long-term, chronic anxiety, committing to a regular meditation practice was transformative—so was talking to a therapist,” Warren says. “Sharing your feelings with an expert is a bit like doing a social meditation. It can help you notice what you’re feeling, and create a safe space to explore those feelings. In the larger container of our shared awareness, anxiety is less likely to take hold.”
Still, some people living with an anxiety disorder may find that mediation alone isn’t enough. If your current anxiety reducing methods don’t seem to be making a dent in your worries, it may be time to reach out to a trusted mental health professional, says Dr. Patel-Dunn. “They can be a valuable resource and are trained to help develop a personalized treatment plan,” she says.
And if in the process you (and your doctor) find that medication is necessary to manage your anxiety symptoms, Dr. Patel-Dunn says that it’s perfectly healthy and normal. “Medication is an evidence-based treatment and has shown to be effective at treating generalized anxiety disorder,” she says. “This is one tool in a psychiatric clinician’s toolkit and may be effectively used in combination with other therapies.”
How to incorporate meditation into your daily life
Ready to embrace meditation for stress and anxiety ASAP? One place to start is the 30-day Mindfulness for Beginners course on Calm, available with a subscription to the platform, which costs $70 annually. Every day, you’ll be introduced to a different guided meditation ranging between nine and 14 minutes.
While working through these mediations—or even outside of them—Warren says that showing yourself compassion in the process can be immensely soul-nourishing. “Put a hand on your chest or your belly, and say to yourself, ‘Oh wow, I see you’re having a hard time,’” he says. “Rest while you do this, lie down. Be caring and nurturing. This kind of loving response can help soothe and settle the nervous system.”
Another option is to tap into the age-old practice of MBSR, which has been around for over 40 years and is based on the principles established in Buddhist vipassana meditation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between the mind and body and being fully in the moment and present. Its guiding principle is noticing when your mind wanders and not passing judgment on yourself if you do trail off.
While the common assumption is that deep meditation occurs while sitting on a specifically designed pillow for the practice, surrounded by meditation room essentials, in reality, Dr. Patel-Dunn says you can engage in mindfulness wherever you are.
Warren mirrors this sentiment, pointing out that if sitting feels too agitating, then moving your body while being mindful can be more beneficial. “Some slow meditation-in-action where you pay attention to sensations of flow and exertion—stretching, shaking, walking, yoga, martial arts… whatever,” he says. “You can also take your moving body out into nature, opening up your senses. As long as you are genuinely committed to the listening or the seeing, and not just default ruminating about your problems, that’s meditation.”
Speaking of listening and seeing, if you need a helpful reminder for how to meditate and embrace mindfulness during an anxious spiral, the 3-3-3 rule for anxiety can help. The idea is that when you’re stressed, stopping to identify three sights and three sounds, and then moving three parts of your body, can help to ground you in the present moment.
According to Warren, the overarching premise behind mindfulness and meditation is to uncover your true self. “Ultimately, meditation is more than just a tool for managing anxiety—it’s a life-long journey of learning that beneath our anxiety, there is a ground of peace and clarity that, truly, is who you are,” he says.
Of course, to reap the rewards of meditation for anxiety and the benefits of mindfulness, you’ll have to keep at your practice, even when it feels impossible. “Your mind wanders, you come back. That’s part of it, always—the natural rhythm of getting distracted and coming back,” Warren says.
All in all, no matter how you choose to weave meditation for anxiety into your daily life, the overall goal is to keep it simple.
“The key is not to make it into some big deal,” Warren says. “Just let it be a natural part of taking care of yourself, a thing you do here and there.” For example, he says you can do it in the car right after you arrive somewhere, before going in. You can do it while waiting at the DMV. You can do it as part of your morning routine while you sit with your coffee. You can do it as you wind down your work for the day.
“Work smart; work with how your life is already configured,” Warren says. By incorporating meditation into your life that way, he assures us that it will be more sustainable, as opposed to becoming an added chore to check off your to-do list.
- Hoge, Elizabeth A. MD, et al. “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Vs Escitalopram for the Treatment of Adults With Anxiety Disorders.” JAMA Psychiatry, 2023, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2022.3679.
- Burgstahler, Matthew S, and Mary C Stenson. “Effects of guided mindfulness meditation on anxiety and stress in a pre-healthcare college student population: a pilot study.” Journal of American college health : J of ACH vol. 68,6 (2020): 666-672. doi:10.1080/07448481.2019.1590371
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