Mindfulness Meditation and Anxiety

By Cliff Hamrick, LPC, Therapist with McCallum Place Austin

Mindfulness meditation is an old idea that is gaining new prominence in mental health treatment. Mindfulness mediation is an ancient practice of disciplining the mind so you are now in charge instead of your mind.  To explain how this works, let me use the example of a dog.

Have you ever been to someone’s home and they have one of THOSE dogs? I’m referring to the kind of dog that has never been trained or disciplined.  This kind of dog will bark at everything, will jump up on people, chew on expensive shoes, urinate on the carpet, jump up on the table and eat food it isn’t supposed to eat.  This sort of dog might even bite people either out of excitement, fear, or aggression.  It might even run out the front door and get lost or hit by a car.  This kind of dog is at best annoying and at worst a danger to itself and other people.  But, this same dog, if given training and discipline, can be a great companion.  With even more training, the dog could become a rescue dog.  The dog itself is not bad, it just doesn’t know better.  For many of us, our minds are like the first kind of dog:  it over-reacts to things around it, it lashes out at people who don’t deserve it (including ourselves), and it becomes preoccupied with ideas and memories that really aren’t healthy or helpful.  Through mindfulness meditation, we train our mind to become more like the second kind of dog:  one that has the focus to disregard imaginary threats, to keep emotions in check so they don’t lead to unhelpful behaviors, and to truly be present to help oneself and others.

The process of mindfulness is amazingly simple though it does take daily practice to become good at it. The beauty of mindfulness meditation is that you can reap the benefits even though you may still feel like you are struggling to improve your skill.  Some clients report benefits in as little as a few weeks.  To use mindfulness meditation, follow these steps:

  1. Find a quiet place to sit. It is not necessary to sit in full lotus style or to take on some complicated yoga posture. Sitting in a straight-backed chair is good enough.
  2. Set a timer for 10 minutes. (There are many mediation timer apps for all smart phones or just use an egg timer.)
  3. With both feet on the floor, take in three long deep breaths. Let yourself relax into the chair as you begin to breathe normally. Feel free to close your eyes if you like.
  4. Find some aspect of your breathing. This can be the air moving through your nostrils, the air moving over your face, or the rise and fall of your chest. Find some aspect of your breathing and focus all of your attention on that.
  5. While you are focusing on your breathing, you will notice that your mind will wander. Sometimes, this happens immediately. Whenever you notice that you are thinking, then just gently remind yourself that you are thinking and go back to your breathing. I say “gently remind yourself” because there is no point in getting angry at yourself for thinking. Getting angry at your mind for thinking is like getting angry at a baby for crying or a dog for barking, it’s what they do. We also aren’t going to label our thoughts. It doesn’t matter if you are thinking about something from the past or worried about something from the future or if you’re just wondering if anything good is on TV tonight. They are all just thoughts.
  6. Continue this until the timer goes off. Then take three long deep breaths, open your eyes, and go about your day.

Though I suggest meditating for ten minutes a day, feel free to start with less. For many people, it is easier to start with five minutes a day and continue that for about a week and then work up to ten minutes.  There really isn’t such a thing as “too much meditation”.  Many people prefer to meditate twenty or thirty minutes and even up to an hour.  In the end, any amount of meditation is helpful.

Though mindfulness mediation is an ancient technique practiced by many spiritual traditions, it is not some New Age “airy-fairy” technique that is only meant to make you feel good. There is real science behind how it works.  Mindfulness meditation will cause real changes in the brain that can be seen under a functional magnetic resonance imager (fMRI).  In one study, titled “Meditation Experience is Associated with Differences in Default Mode Network Activity and Connectivity”, experienced and inexperienced meditators were asked to meditate and not meditate while having their brains scanned with a fMRI.  The study found that in both cases there was a reduction of the brain’s “default state” while meditating.  The default state is a condition that the brain enters when it is not actively engaged in a task.  For instance, the feeling or day dreaming or “zoning out” are examples of the default state.  Another study, titled, “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind”, found that people are in the default state about 50% of the time and when in the default state, they are unhappy.  So, with these two studies, we can see that mindfulness meditation stops the mind from wandering, which helps prevent unhappiness.  But, the study found that when experienced meditators are not meditating, their brain is still less likely to enter the default mode.  This means that the effects of mindfulness meditation are being felt even when you are not actively meditating.

This all has strong implications for those who suffer from anxiety, a common issue for clients suffering from an eating disorder. Anxiety is a fear-based response to some form of stimulus.  The source of this fear is the amygdala.  This fear can come from two sources:  external or internal.  An external source is what we typically think of.  It can be a near accident while driving, flying in an airplane, or being asked to eat a lot of food at dinner.  The internal sources are generated by our brain while in the default mode.  While our mind is wandering it will sometimes create fears about the future that may never or even could never come true.  The stimulus itself and its source is actually immaterial.  To our brain, they are all real and all life-threatening.

With mindfulness meditation, another part of the brain, the anterior cingulated cortex becomes more active. This part of the brain will inhibit the other parts of the brain that create these powerful fear-based responses.  This means, that during an anxiety attack, if the person meditates, then the anxiety will be reduced.  But, even more importantly, as one meditates, this part of the brain stays active more often, which reduces the chances of the anxiety rising up in the first place.

Brewer, J. A. & et al. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, v108, n50, pp20254-20259.

Killingsword, M.A. & Gilbert, D.T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, v330, n6006, pp932.

Siegel, D.J. (2010). The mindful therapist: A clinician’s guide to mindsight and neural integration.  New York, NY:  W.W. Norton & Company.

Learn more about McCallum Place Austin at 877-755-2244.

Cliff Hamrick is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a part-time therapist with McCallum Place Austin.  Cliff earned his master of arts in counseling from St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX.  His prior experience includes working with adolescents at Settlement Home for Children, a residential treatment center for adolescent girls.  He has also worked as an investigator with Child Protective Services and a counselor for people seeking treatment for drug and alcohol addiction.  His specialties include men’s issues and depression.