Meditation + Anxiety

By Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D.

Meditation can be quite challenging for people with anxiety difficulties.  In addition to the usual difficulty with concentration, they can be overly sensitive to physical sensations, jittery, and prone to rumination.  As a result, seated breath meditation--the typical starting point for newbies--often becomes too frustrating or overly provocative.  Indeed, many just give-up and resolve never to meditate again.  [Of course, a breath focus might be a useful exposure exercise, but it is not one that is initially relaxing.]

Fortunately, there are many kinds of meditation available.  And, there are a few that are particularly helpful in cultivating relaxation for people with anxiety:

Sound Meditation:  Listen to sounds in the environment.  While sound ultimately is perceived internally through listening, the apparent focus is external to the body and thus less anxiety-provoking.

Walking Meditation:  Pay attention to the physical sensations of walking by noting shifting body weight, tensing muscles in the legs, and the “lift, move, place” of each foot.  It is a more active meditation because you’re physically moving and the object of meditation keeps changing.  

Word Focus:  Repeat an anchor word or phrase in one’s mind.  Based on Herbert Benson’s work on the relaxation response, this style of meditation provides a verbal object of focus, which occupies the thinking mind.  I advise people to pick two simple words and synchronize their repetition with each breath in and out.  For example, you might inhale while thinking the word “one” and exhale while thinking the word “peace.”  I also like Thich Nhat Hanh’s suggestion:  “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.  Breathing out, I smile.”  

Last month, I started recording professional, guided meditations, available on our website and Insight Timer.  My inaugural meditation, Sound Meditation, is 9 minutes long and can be found here:  Resources.  Give it a try and let me know what you think--or hear.  :-)