Catch your breath: How meditation and mindfulness can reduce anxiety

Catch your breath: How meditation and mindfulness can reduce anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most common reasons Australians see their doctor. If you’re feeling anxious and want some tools to help you reframe and refocus, meditation and mindfulness exercises could help.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a state of impartial awareness, where you’re able to acknowledge what is going on around you and your feelings about it, both emotional and physical, in a calm way.

The main components of mindfulness are:

  • Non-judgement: Mindfulness takes the stance of ‘the observing self.’ You notice what the mind is saying. By doing this you can become aware of the constant stream of ‘self-talk’ of judging, reacting and categorising.
  • Patience: Anxiety falsely tells us that everything is urgent. Patience is being open to each moment as it unfolds; accepting it in its fullness.
  • Beginner’s mind: Often our thinking about what we know prevents us from seeing things as they really are. A beginner’s mind is willing to see everything as if it is for the first time. Ask yourself are you really seeing yourself or your environment through a veil of your own thoughts and opinions.
  • Acceptance: Acceptance is seeing things as they truly are in the present. Before you can change anything, you need to accept it first. We spend a lot of time resisting what is fact. This doesn’t mean you have to like everything or become passive (it doesn’t mean you are abandoning your values). Once you accept what is, it’s easier to change what we don’t like.
  • Letting go: When we hold onto certain things this can prevent us from experiencing the current moment for what it is.

The benefits of a mindfulness practice

  • Living ‘wakefully,’ which leads to us becoming awake in our own life.
  • Living in the present. As humans, we often allow our minds to wander to the past or future, fixating or fantasising. The present is the only time we can know anything about. It is the only time we can learn, act, change and heal.
  • Accepting that all things have an ending. By ‘seeing’ the experience of thinking, the mind is lighting upon the fact that all arising phenomena are transitory and fleeting.
  • Processing and moving past our thoughts. A thought becomes merely a 'thought', it has no value and is a string of letters in one’s mind. We begin to see the impermanence of thoughts, feelings and sensations in our body.
  • Acting, rather than reacting. Our reactions become highly automatic in stressful situations. By being mindful we can step back from the voice in our heads.

Anxiety, panic and over-breathing

When we become worried or stressed, or we have to deal with a threat, certain changes happen in our body. These changes are known as the fight or flight response. This response is designed to prepare our body for stressful demands, and to switch off those bodily responses not required in such stressful circumstances.

Once the danger has passed, the body returns to normal. However, when we suffer from an anxiety disorder, the fight or flight response could be activated many times a day.

One of the key aspects of the fight or flight response is increased breathing rate (respiration). Increase in respiration is necessary to the fight or flight response, but when a depressed or anxious person experiences the fight or flight response over and over again, a state of 'over-breathing' results.

Over-breathing occurs when a person is breathing more often and more quickly than their body requires. This leads to a decrease in the level of carbon dioxide and an increase in the level of oxygen in the blood. If this imbalance occurs for too long, this can cause narrowing of blood vessels and difficulty releasing oxygen into the cells of the body, leading to symptoms such as tingling sensations or dizziness.

In order to control over-breathing, breathe through your nose, keep your mouth closed, and slow your rate of breathing.

Use the following exercise to control over-breathing:

  1. Close your mouth and breathe in through your nose, focusing on taking easy, regular breaths. As you breathe in, bring the air down into your diaphragm (a muscle in the middle of your body just under your last rib) so that you can feel its gentle, outward movement.
  2. Focus on breathing in six-second cycles or 10 to 12 breaths per minute. Count ‘in, one, two’ breathe in, then count ‘out, one, two’ as you breathe out and say the word ‘relax’ to yourself.
  3. Practise this exercise every two hours for about two minutes.
  4. When you are aware of over-breathing, interrupt your increased breathing rate by holding your breath for a count of up to 10. Repeat, then begin your controlled breathing. This will help you make the change more smoothly.

Try a guided breathing exercise

Using flow to reframe

According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2009), the key to unlocking meaning, creativity and optimal experiences in one’s life is through a highly focused mental state called 'flow'.

Flow is a state of mind that allows information into your consciousness and completely opens up and immerses you into the feeling of full, rich engagement into a creative and pleasurable activity. Through the state of flow, a person can unlock their potential and significantly improve their quality of life.

Getting into the flow state is a skill, and there are specific practices that will help you to attain it. The more you practise the more you achieve your own flow state. One of the ways to strengthen your ability to get into flow is through meditation. Meditation helps you to enhance your attentional focus, and thus can increase your ability to stay fully immersed in a state of flow during creative or pleasurable activities. Additionally, once you become more experienced, you may get into flow during meditation itself.

Try a guided meditation exercise

Reach out for support

As the largest private provider of mental health care in Australia, Ramsay Mental Health is dedicated to making a real difference in the lives of those we treat.

Our clinics offer a range of services designed to support mindfulness, including meditation. If you have been feeling anxious, our expert team can assist you in creating a plan to help get your mental health back on track.