When you’re anxious, it can feel like your brain is running at double speed. You might be thinking into the future and worrying about what lies ahead, and it can feel incredibly stressful.
On the other hand, meditation for anxiety can provide the exact opposite feelings. Instead of ruminating, meditation asks you to stop and just focus on the present. It’s OK (and normal) to have thoughts pop up along the way, but with meditation, you learn to let them float by, as opposed to latching onto them as a source of stress.
That’s why some mental health experts recommend using meditation as one tool to help ease anxiety. Sitting and quieting your mind is not a cure for anxiety, of course, but it’s one thing you can do regularly to help relieve anxious, unproductive thoughts.
Here, learn about the important role meditation can play in easing anxiety, why it can help, and how to meditate to bring calm to a racing mind.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a term that’s used in everyday conversation a lot—and it’s common to have anxiety sometimes. But when these fears and worries don’t go away and instead stick with you for the long haul, you may have an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). You may also find that you’re restless or on edge, feel irritable, have difficulty concentrating, and experience sleep problems. (Keep reading for guidance on when to speak with a healthcare practitioner about anxiety.)
Can Meditation Reduce Anxiety?
Meditation is a practice anyone can do that’s been shown to reduce anxiety. In a meta-analysis of 25 studies with nearly 1,500 college students, mindfulness meditation was found to have “a large and significant effect” in relieving anxiety, according to 2018 research published in the journal Mindfulness. Another 2018 study published in Psychiatry Research concluded that mindfulness meditation training reduced stress markers in people who had generalized anxiety disorder compared to those in a control group. What’s more, meditation also helped improve stress resilience, possibly turning down the dial on the body’s stress response when encountering future taxing situations.
How Does Meditation Reduce Anxiety?
For some, meditation can be a helpful tool for easing anxiety thanks to its stress-reducing effects, explains Maggie Lancioni, LPC, a licensed professional counselor and founder of Therapy with Maggie LPC. But how exactly does it do so? Here are a handful of ways meditation helps relieve anxiety:
1. It Calms Your Mind
When you focus on neutral or calming thoughts, your mind becomes calm in turn, Lancioni says. It may sound simple, but it’s effective: “The goal is to quiet down the anxious thoughts, feel grounded, and reduce overall physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a racing heart,” she says.
Think about how much your thoughts affect how you feel, and then consider how you can alter those feelings by shifting your mindset. “It’s usually our thoughts, or our thoughts about a physical sensation or manifestation, that create anxiety,” says Peloton instructor Nico Sarani. “When we stop or redirect our thoughts, we don’t really have a reason to be anxious in that very moment of meditation.”
2. It Sends Helpful Signals to Your Body
In many ways, a meditative state is the exact opposite of an anxious state. Anxiety sends stress hormones coursing through your system—something that’s helpful in truly threatening situations, says Alison Seponara, LPS, a licensed professional counselor and author of The Anxiety Healer’s Guide. But those thoughts aren’t needed or helpful during other times, which is where meditation can help.
“We often start a meditation by letting our body relax,” Nico says. “This tells our nervous system that we are safe. This type of meditation-induced relaxation response counteracts our body’s stress response, which “leads to a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension, promoting a deep sense of relaxation and calmness,” Seponara adds.
When you make meditation a habit, these benefits can stick with you long after your session ends. “Through a regular meditation practice, we learn how it feels to be in a relaxed state and how to direct our mind away from stressful thoughts, instead of getting ‘stuck’ in a stressed-out or anxious state of mind,” Nico says.
3. It Encourages Beneficial Breathwork
During a guided meditation practice, you’re instructed to breathe deeply, which also activates your parasympathetic (aka “rest and digest”) nervous system, adding to your body’s calm response.
“We may start a meditation by consciously breathing into our belly—another process that tells the body and mind that there is nothing we need to run away from,” Nico says.
There’s some research to back this up: In a 2023 Scientific Reports meta-analysis of 12 randomized-controlled trials, breathwork was associated with reduced stress and anxiety, though more research is needed.
4. It Helps Bring You Into the Present
“By bringing our attention to the present moment, meditation helps to break the cycle of worry and rumination that often accompanies anxiety,” Seponara says. She explains that meditation allows you to observe your thoughts and emotions in a non-judgemental way, which puts space between you and your anxiety. “[Meditation] takes the mental focus off our thoughts and thought processes and makes us present,” Nico adds.
This distance can also give you the needed perspective that you are not your anxious thoughts—and just because you have them, it doesn’t mean they’re facts or that you should act on them. (Talk about an incredibly powerful perspective.)
5. It Enhances Your Self-Awareness
By slowing the stream of thoughts that flow through the mind, meditation teaches you to become more attuned to any anxious or negative thoughts and feelings. Rumination is a common feature of stress, anxiety, and depression, but meditation helps to calm this repetitive thought pattern by teaching your mind not to jump on these “thought trains.” Instead, you learn to observe them and let them pass by without judgment. Over time, this creates distance from these thoughts and lessens their impact.
6. It May Improve Emotional Regulation
By observing your thoughts without judgment, meditation helps to reduce impulsive or emotional responses to them. Rather than feeling like your thoughts are controlling you, it gives you a stronger sense of control over your thought patterns. And, by fostering a deeper recognition of anxious feelings and helping you choose a calm response, meditation helps train your mind to do the same when faced with anxiety-inducing situations in your everyday life.
How to Meditate for Anxiety
As good and effective as meditation is for calming a racing mind, it can also feel challenging for some folks with anxiety. “It’s totally valid that for lots of people, meditation is actually quite difficult and takes lots of practice, Lancioni says. “Quieting down and redirecting anxious thoughts can feel super hard, especially since we have thousands of thoughts a day.”
If you have anxiety, you might find that you flitter from one task to the next to fill up your time so that you don’t have to sit with uncomfortable anxious thoughts. With meditation, you’ll need to sit with your feelings, and sometimes the chatter in your head can become louder when the surroundings turn quiet.
If you do find that your mind wanders during meditation—and it will, you’re human!—try to redirect your focus back to the meditation object (like your breath or the instructor’s cues), Nico says. “Tell yourself: ‘Whatever it is I’m anxious about right now, I can deal with later. Now is the time to relax and be present,’” she suggests.
All that said, here are four helpful tips to consider when you’re starting a meditation for anxiety practice:
1. Work It Into Your Daily Routine
Try starting with a five-minute meditation and see how it feels, Nico recommends. The great thing about meditation is that it can be done anywhere, from sitting at home to lying in bed to taking a walk around your neighborhood.
That said, it’s important to plan out where meditation will fall in your day. Do you have an extra five minutes in the morning after getting up to make it part of your morning routine? How about a few minutes after work to simmer down from the day’s stressors? The best place for meditation in your routine is up to you, but it can help to consciously schedule it in.
2. Select a Guided Meditation for Anxiety
Good news: You don’t have to try meditation alone. Try starting with a guided meditation, which is essentially a meditation session led by an instructor who walks you through the practice step by step, from setting intentions to guiding your breathwork.
“Guided meditation allows you to focus on another person’s directive so that you aren’t having to redirect your own thoughts constantly,” Lancioni says. “It’s a great way to ease into meditation and feel its effects before trying different types of meditation.”
Seponara adds that some guided meditation sessions feature calming music and sounds, which can also help reduce stress. If needed, she says, you can focus on the music to keep your mind away from anxious thoughts and bring it into the present. “This can be especially helpful for those who find it difficult to quiet their busy minds during meditation,” Seponara says.
Pro tip: The Peloton App offers a variety of guided meditations you can pick from. “I suggest starting with calming or relaxing meditations,” Nico says. “They generally work with a focus on that physical release of tension, but may also work with a mantra that evokes a feeling of safety and letting go. This mantra may even help you in everyday situations when you feel anxiety—just recall the mantra and it can help you let go of anxiety and bring you back to the present moment.”
3. Sit Comfortably and Get Started
There are a few different meditation positions, Nico says. One popular technique is to sit cross-legged with your bottom raised on a prop, such as a yoga block or cushion. “Having your knees further down than your hips allows for belly breathing, which relaxes the nervous system,” she explains. Other options are to sit in a chair, lean against a wall, or lie down.
Once you’re in a comfortable position, “take a few belly breaths to begin with, and scan through your body to release any tension in those areas where you feel you are storing stress,” Nico recommends. “Consciously let go of any holding patterns here.”
4. Stick with It
Meditation is something anyone can do—but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll feel easy the first time you try it. “Much like anything new, practice is key,” Lancioni says. “It might take you a few tries to get comfortable with experiencing a meditative state.”
Meditating regularly is necessary for making it a habit and establishing a practice. Find a meditation class or instructor that you love to help make it stick. “Make it easy for yourself in those challenging moments in life—if there is a particular meditation or a special teacher that you like or resonate with, do that meditation,” Nico recommends. “The easier we make it for ourselves, the more likely that we’ll establish a regular meditation routine.”
If you fall out of your routine, don’t fret—just try to get back in the swing of things again. “The more often you practice, the easier it gets,” Nico says. Eventually, you may get to a point where “you can’t imagine not having this wonderful ‘tool’ at your hands,” she adds.
How Soon Does Meditation Help Ease Anxiety?
While you might leave a single meditation session feeling calmer and more at peace, you’ll notice the best results if you meditate regularly over a long period of time, Lancioni says.
The aforementioned Mindfulness study on college students recommended at least eight meditation sessions, but you can practice as often and as long as your schedule allows, even if it’s just for 60 seconds to start. You’ll notice that as you practice meditation more and more, it'll become easier to focus on your breath or an instructor’s cues and stay present.
d3sign / Moment via Getty Images
What About Meditation for Sleep Anxiety?
Just as meditation can help with anxiety in our waking lives, studies have found meditation can also help with sleep anxiety and disorders. Stress is a huge factor affecting both our ability to fall asleep and the quality of that sleep. Remember, a consistent meditation practice creates a relaxation response, giving your mind the tools and techniques to slow down thoughts and release any tension. It also lowers the production of stress hormones, helping you drift off to a more restful night’s sleep. (There are even specific meditations designed to help you sleep.)
Other Benefits of Meditation
Plenty of research highlights meditation’s potential positive effects on mental health. But the practice can do more than help ease anxiety—it offers many other possible benefits as well, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. While more research needs to be done, other potential benefits of meditation may include:
Blood pressure reduction
Possible pain management
Reduction in insomnia and better sleep
Substance use recovery
Reduction in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms
Weight control and eating behavior management (if that’s a goal for you)
When to Talk to a Healthcare Practitioner About Anxiety
There are several types of anxiety disorders, but it’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, which is anxiety that lingers for months or years, according to the NIMH. Those signs include difficulty concentrating, irritability, headaches, stomachaches, uncontrolled worry, sleep problems, feeling restless, and being easily fatigued. These symptoms impact your quality of life and can impair your functioning at work, school, or in relationships.
If you recognize the above signs, consider reaching out to a mental health practitioner, preferably one who specializes in anxiety disorders. You’re never alone, and they can help map out the best course of action for you.
Although meditation is a wonderful practice, it’s unlikely that meditation alone will be the answer to your anxiety, Seponara says. Lancioni agrees: “Meditation is a great tool to aid in reducing anxiety and bringing present awareness; however, you may also require it in tandem with other skills and/or medication—and there’s no shame in that.”
Think of meditation as one tool in your toolbox, which you may need to use alongside other coping skills, Lancioni says. Those might include journaling, exercising, or challenging negative self-talk, she says, noting that these skills and coping mechanisms can be developed alongside a professional therapist.
Finally, know that meditation may not be a useful anxiety-relieving practice for everybody, and that’s OK. Either way, you can work alongside your practitioner to determine what’s best for you.
Meditation soothes your nervous system to calm down your mind and body, which has been shown to counteract anxiety.“It’s important to note that meditation is a skill that requires practice and patience,” Seponara reminds us. “It may not provide immediate relief, but over time, it can have a profound impact on managing anxiety levels.” The Peloton App provides guided meditations that can get you started, with classes ranging from five to 30 minutes.
If you have symptoms of an anxiety disorder, reach out to your doctor or a licensed mental health therapist for further coping tools and to uncover the root cause of your anxiety.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.