“You know that feeling of anticipation you get when you’re slowly walking through a haunted house waiting for something to jump out at you? Now imagine having that same exact feeling, except this time, you’re just walking through a grocery store. That’s anxiety.” ~ Tiffany Jenkins
About 40 million adults, or 18.1% of the population, are living with an anxiety disorder in the United States.
If you’re one of them, you know how debilitating anxiety can be. It can truly keep you from enjoying your life.
Though some people find relief with conventional medicine, others choose to go the natural route. If you’re one who’s looking into natural remedies, you might be interested in meditation. It’s helped many people get control over their stress and anxiety, and it’s backed by numerous studies.
How does meditation help anxiety?
During times of chronic stress, our bodies release high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This puts us in a continuous state of fight-or-flight.
An example of this might be losing your job and then experiencing extreme financial difficulties for two years. Being in this chronic fight-or-flight state can contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, and brain changes that can lead to depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Enter meditation. Meditation works by training the brain and body to achieve a “relaxation response.” This is a very relaxed state, essentially the opposite of the fight-or-flight response.
In a very selective review of 47 studies (involving 3,515 participants with mental or physical conditions or high stress levels), researchers discovered that those who practiced mindfulness meditation showed improvements in stress, anxiety, depression and pain. The findings were consistent even though many of the participants had little training in meditation.
Another study showed that relaxation-response techniques, such as meditation, could cut the need for health care services by 43 percent.
Remember the fight-or-flight response we talked about earlier? This high-stress state is activated by a part of the brain called the amygdala. In a large brain scan study, a research team discovered that long-term meditators had reduced amygdala activation when they were shown emotionally-negative images.
In addition, among participants with just 8 weeks of meditation training, brain scans revealed an increase in connectivity between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (a brain region that supports goal-tracking and self-regulation).
More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic acted as a motivator for stressed and lonely people to finally give meditation a try. This gave researchers a chance to observe whether a meditation app, along with exercise, could reduce COVID-related stress.
The study found that a strong meditation habit and physical exercise had a significant positive effect on post-traumatic stress symptoms.
Types of meditation
There are several types of meditation.
A few major ones include the following:
- Mindfulness meditation
- Loving-kindness meditation
- Body scan meditation
Mindfulness meditation is one of the most well-known and most researched types of meditation.
Mindfulness meditation involves two basic aspects: attention (focusing on the present moment) and acceptance (observing thoughts, feelings, or sensations without judgment).
Mindfulness meditation trains us to let our thoughts and feelings pass overhead like clouds and not give them so much power.
Loving-kindness is a type of Buddhist meditation that helps us develop unconditional love and kindness toward ourselves and other people. This type of meditation can help us resolve anxiety stemming from relationship problems, including disappointment or resentment toward others.
When you practice loving-kindness meditation, you send loving thoughts toward a few people, following an order from easy to difficult.
First you send love to yourself, then to someone you love, then to a person who is neutral to you (like a neighbor you often see but don’t know), then to a challenging person in your life and finally out to the universe.
During a body scan meditation, you mentally scan for tension or anxiety in your body. Anxiety in your body might feel like a clenched fist, a tight stomach or shoulders, a headache, or a lump in your throat. Pause on each body part and notice if you feel any tension or tightness. If you do, practice releasing the feeling and then relaxing that part.
Natural Herbs for Anxiety
We’ve written a lot about herbs for anxiety, But here’s a short refresher on the herbs we carry to help you with stress.
Many people drink kava for its anti-anxiety properties.
The Cochrane Review recommends kava as a symptomatic treatment for anxiety (60–280 mg kavalactones/day).
Several studies suggest that kava can be an alternative to benzodiazepines and selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), especially in people with mild to moderate anxiety.
In one double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study, a research team evaluated the effectiveness of kava on people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD is a common debilitating disorder which can last a lifetime.
A total of 75 people took part in a 6-week trial of a kava extract compared to placebo. The findings reveal a significant reduction in anxiety for the kava group compared with the placebo group.
Ashwagandha is a powerful adaptogen.
In one review evaluating the effects of ashwagandha on anxiety in rodents, the authors write:
“Ashwagandha induced a calming anxiolytic [anti-anxiety] effect that was comparable to the drug Lorazepam in all three standard Anxiety tests: the elevated plus-maze, social interaction and the feeding latency in an unfamiliar environment.”
The research supports the use of ashwagandha as a mood stabilizer in clinical conditions of anxiety and depression.
Holy basil – also called Tulsi – is an ancient herb commonly used in Ayurveda, a natural medicine system with roots in India. In Ayurveda, holy basil is often called the “Elixir of Life” because of its healing powers.
Holy basil is an important adaptogen that has long been recognized to treat many different common health conditions. Adaptogens are a class of herbs that help increase your ability to handle stress and fatigue. Adaptogens essentially “adapt” to your body’s specific needs.
So how does holy basil help with stress? Long term stress results in overactivity of the brain’s HPA axis (hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal glands).
When the HPA becomes overactive, it results in the release of too much epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol (chemicals involved in the fight-or-flight response). This can result in a variety of health problems, including mental health disorders, insomnia, diabetes and heart disease.
Adaptogens can impact how much cortisol and adrenaline is released, which can help combat adrenal fatigue.