Mindfulness meditation is the process of purposefully and nonjudgmentally observing thoughts, feelings, and sensations to help provide distance from negative or overpowering feelings of anxiety. It centers around the concepts of awareness and acceptance, and research shows that it has benefits for anxiety, pain management, and other conditions.

Anxiety can lead to racing thoughts that interrupt focus and concentration. Mindfulness meditation is a technique that can relax the mind and body to help manage stress and anxiety.

Mindfulness meditation strives to focus the mind on the present moment, allowing it to notice sensations and feelings without evaluating them.

In this article, we will examine what mindfulness meditation is, how to perform it, and the scientific evidence that supports it.

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Anxiety is the way the body responds to an overload of stress. It brings on feelings of fear, discomfort, and unease.

Anxiety can serve an important function, providing motivation to help people avoid danger or confront an issue, but when anxiety is constant, it becomes a disorder.

Anxiety disorders affect almost 1 in 5 adults in the United States, totaling more than 40 million people. There are several types of anxiety disorders, including:

  • generalized anxiety
  • panic
  • phobias
  • social anxiety

Anxiety causes both physical and mental symptoms. It often produces thoughts that are intrusive, hard to control, and negative. It can also cause a fast heartbeat, dizziness, aches and pains, and shortness of breath.

Learn more about the physical symptoms of anxiety here.

When people feel anxious, their thoughts begin to race and tend toward the negative. Mindfulness is a technique to settle racing thoughts and calm the body through two steps: attention and acceptance.

With attention, a person notices what is happening in the moment. This includes what sensations are taking place in the body physically and what thoughts are going through the mind.

Acceptance revolves around noticing the feelings and experiences while withholding judgment on them — they are neither positive nor negative but simply exist as they are.

Mindfulness meditation helps reduce the body’s sharp response to stress and return things to a manageable and more comfortable level.

When the body is in a stressed state, people often experience all their thoughts, feelings, and sensations in a way that seems heightened. Mindfulness helps lower the intensity of the body’s reaction to stressful circumstances.

Mindfulness allows a person to take a step away from the chaos of anxiety and create a buffer that provides protective emotional space. In doing so, a person should be better able to examine the source of the anxiety.

Mindfulness meditation is a fairly simple practice that anyone can try.

Anytime the feelings of anxiety descend, a person should take a few moments to practice mindfulness meditation and see whether it helps reduce the stress reaction.

A person can follow these steps:

  • Focus attention on the present moment. Notice the emotions and physical sensations of the moment and simply hold them, without evaluating or passing judgment on them. Become a receptacle for these sensations and notice how they change as time passes.
  • Center the attention on breathing. Notice the pattern of breathing and pay attention to the rhythm. Feel whether it is shallow or deep and whether the sensation is greater in the chest or the nose.
  • Widen the attention out to encompass the entire body. Notice the feelings throughout the body as they change from moment to moment. Hold the feelings, observing them without judgment.

A 2017 study from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, found that 10 minutes of daily mindful meditation helps prevent a wandering mind and repetitive, anxious thoughts.

In the study, researchers asked 82 participants to perform a computer exercise while experiencing interruptions. They then divided the participants into two groups. The control group listened to an audio story, and the other group performed mindful meditation.

Those who participated in meditation had better concentration and less off-task thinking.

Other research shows that mindful meditation affects the way the brain processes stress and has positive effects on stress-related health conditions. The study also links it to improved pain management among people with chronic pain.

Mindfulness meditation is also cost effective and does not have side effects that some people may experience with other treatments, such as medications. There is minimal stigma associated with it, and a person can practice it anywhere.

There is no one way to manage anxiety, which is a multifaceted issue that people can address through many methods. A few things to try include:

  • getting enough quality sleep
  • performing deep breathing exercises
  • fighting perfectionism and accepting doing one’s best
  • laughing
  • getting involved in projects and groups, such as volunteering in the community
  • talking with friends, family members, or a therapist
  • exercising daily
  • counting to 10 when anxiety arises
  • learning to recognize anxiety triggers

If a particular situation regularly causes anxiety, it can also be useful for a person to practice exposure therapy to help them overcome the fear. This does not mean immediately rushing into the situation that causes anxiety but taking small steps toward it, over time, to grow in comfort gradually. It may be helpful to walk through this process with the aid of a therapist.

If anxiety is chronic or debilitating, a person should seek help from a doctor or licensed therapist.

Anxiety can motivate people in positive ways, but when it lasts too long, it can take a physical and mental toll.

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of noticing how the body and mind are reacting to a stressful moment and acknowledging those reactions without passing judgment on them.

In doing so, people can create space between themselves and their emotions, allowing them to step away from them and view them with a better perspective. This provides the opportunity to evaluate the source of the anxiety or stress.

Mindfulness meditation is most helpful when a person practices it on a regular basis, but it can still help in isolated situations.