By Lucy Yardley
Anxiety and depression are officially the two most common mental conditions in the United States, with anxiety alone affecting 40 million adults, as reported by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Around two million of these have one of the most severe manifestations of anxiety – panic disorder, which can seriously hamper their well-being and sometimes make work or a social life an impossibility.
Given the potentially addictive nature of prescription medications, many therapists are looking to natural yet powerful means of battling anxiety and panic. Among the many available, one that stands out is mindfulness meditation – an ancient holistic practice that leads an individual into a state in which they can accept and recognize difficult emotions like panic, yet ‘ride through it’ and see it as an impermanent phenomenon. Doing so wrests from the power of panic to take control. Mindfulness does not only treat the symptoms of panic (e.g. hyperventilation); it goes straight to the cause, lowering stress levels so that the mind never becomes overrun by the stress hormone, cortisol.
Mindfulness Meditation As Powerful As Medication
A study by researchers at John Hopkins University has found that meditation for just 30 to 40 minutes a day can be as powerful as antidepressants when it comes to battling anxiety. Its power for those who have panic attacks lies in its ability to bypass the ‘fight or flight’ response. Instead of running away from difficult emotions like worry, and instead of trying to fight or repress these emotions, the aim is to accept them. You are in control, and by engaging in pranayamic (or controlled) breathing and reminding yourself that even the most difficult of emotions are transitory, you can reduce the symptoms of panic. These include a rapid heart rate and taking in too many short breaths – which floods your system with oxygen and sets off hyperventilation.
Mindfulness Meditation As Part Of A Multifaceted Strategy Against Panic
Mindfulness meditation does not have to be carried out on its own. In fact, studies have shown that when carried out in conjunction with other calming activities, it can have a powerful effect indeed. One study published in the journal Stress and Health found that mindfulness, combined with art creation, lowered stress and anxiety. Those who wish to try out the power of art can start off by doing so after a mindfulness session, when they feel calm or relaxed. They can draw how they feel, learn the fundamentals of landscape art, or sketch or sculpt a flower or other natural element. This act of creation can help remind you that there are so many elements of the natural world that are worth experiencing ‘in the moment’. Iy, it can prompt you to return to natural spaces to hone your ability to draw the world around you.
It’s All About Focus
For many years, yogis and Buddhists have relied on meditation to enhance their ability to focus on tasks. This ability to lead the mind as one desires, can be a powerful aid when it comes to battling the utter helplessness one can feel during a panic attack. A study by researchers at Trinity College Dublin found that breath-focused meditation not only enhances the ability to focus, but also improves arousal levels, boosts positive emotions, and reduces emotional reactivity.
The latter is also of particular interest to those with severe anxiety, since panic can be spurred on by high emotional reactivity to a trigger. In daily life, stressful situations and people cannot always be avoided, but the way one reacts to them can be changed. Meditation can help foster the cognitive ability that is required to control these reactions. In the study, the researchers found that during mindfulness meditation and controlled breathing practice, the brain released just the right amount of noradrenaline – a chemical messenger that helps the brain grow new connections.
In the Trinity College study mentioned above, researchers referred to mindfulness meditation as having the ability to ‘fertilize’ the brain, as it were, with feel-good chemicals. When it comes to panic, creating a calmer long-term state and reducing emotional reactivity are vital, since they can buffer the effect that triggers might otherwise have. Mindfulness meditation can be practiced by anyone, regardless of their age. To try it out yourself, start with an app like Headspace or Calm, which offer guided tutorials that can introduce you to the wonderful world of meditation.