Therapies & Solutions

How to Use Mindfulness to Reduce Anxiety

Emma Loker, BSc Psychology

Written by

Emma Loker, BSc Psychology

Last updated September 6, 2022

How to Use Mindfulness to Reduce Anxiety

Reducing Anxiety with Mindfulness: Does It Work?

Mindfulness can reduce anxiety - this is a well-researched concept. Practising mindfulness improves our self-awareness and enhances our capabilities in responding appropriately to stress and anxiety.

But how exactly does mindfulness lower anxiety? And can too much mindfulness have the opposite effect? Find out below.

How Mindfulness Lowers Anxiety

We must first recognize how our stress response system works to understand how mindfulness lowers anxiety. You see, anxiety is a natural response to a threatening or dangerous situation.

When we sense a threat, our anxiety levels spike - our bodies release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which activate the sympathetic nervous system, spurring our body into action. We call this reaction the fight or flight response.

For any activity to be stress-relieving, it must activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This shuts down the sympathetic nervous system, calming the body down by:

  • Reducing the heart rate to baseline
  • Decreasing the breathing rate and blood pressure
  • Increasing digestion
  • Enhancing saliva and mucus production [1]

This is precisely what mindfulness meditation does. When you meditate, you deactivate the sympathetic branch and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps reduce anxiety, stress, depression, and pain [2].

However, that’s not the only effect mindfulness has. Evidence suggests that practicing

mindfulness can also change your brain, altering your:

  • Sense of self
  • Emotion regulation
  • Pain tolerance
  • Bodily awareness
  • Perception
  • Complex thinking
  • Introspection [3]

This helps to counteract some of the neurochemical changes associated with anxiety.

Those who practice mindfulness are also less likely to respond negatively (with negative thoughts and emotions) to stressful situations [4].

So, it seems that mindfulness has a powerful effect on our bodies and brains. But can too much mindfulness have adverse effects?

Can You Practice Mindfulness Too Much?

While sources are quick to share the many positives of mindfulness, there’s a general reluctance to share the potential adverse effects.

However, a study by Britton and colleagues explores exactly this. In a sample of 96 people participating in an 8-week mindfulness-based therapy program:

  • 6% reported adverse side effects.
  • 14% claimed they experienced disruptive side effects for more than one month.

The adverse effects they reported covered a wide range of negative physiological experiences, but the most frequently reported and detrimental were:

  • Anxiety
  • Dissociative signs
  • Social withdrawal
  • Flashbacks
  • Disrupted sleeping/waking cycles
  • Difficulty making decisions and problem-solving
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Emotional numbness [5]

As you can see, too much mindfulness can worsen anxiety and bring about several additional difficulties. While the benefits of mindfulness undoubtedly outweigh the potential cons, it’s worth keeping an eye on the frequency of your meditation practices.

Mindfulness Practices to Reduce Anxiety

You can practice mindfulness anywhere, including behind the wheel. Of course, we wouldn’t recommend shutting your eyes in this case! Let’s explore the top mindfulness practices to reduce anxiety.

1. The 3-3-3 Rule

The 3-3-3 Rule for Anxiety helps you tune into your senses, bringing your attention to the present moment. This activates the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system and thus calms you down.

This approach involves identifying three things around you that you can see, three things you can hear, and three things you can touch.

You can find detailed instructions for in our article titled The 3-3-3 Rule.

2. Mindful Walking

Mindful walking combines the benefits of mindfulness with exercise - it’s a win-win! Just follow the simple steps below:

3. Start Walking

To begin your mindful walk, take yourself outside and start to walk at your natural pace. Rest your hands in a comfortable place, whether that’s by your sides or on your stomach.

4. Take 5 Deep Breaths

As you start your walk, focus on your breathing, not trying to change it, noticing it. Feel the air traveling through your airways - through your nose and into your lungs. How does it feel in your chest?

Take one deep breath through your nose, breathing right into your diaphragm. Hold this for 4 seconds, and then release the breath through your mouth. Repeat this for a cycle of 5 breaths.

5. Notice Your Feet

Begin to notice how your feet feel as they touch the ground. At this point in your walk, you have likely formed a rhythmic movement - one foot forward, then the other, then the other. Notice how this rhythmic motion feels, your feet touching the solid ground beneath you, your legs lifting up and down.

Now, bring your attention to your body. Is it shifting from one side to the other as you walk? Are your arms swaying gently? Allow your mind to wander to any area of the body that’s calling out to you.

6. Notice the Sights, Sounds, and Smells

Once you have fully explored your bodily sensations, bring your awareness to what you can see around you.

  • What colors and objects can you see?
  • Are there people around you, or are you on your own?
  • Are you surrounded by countryside or big city buildings?
  • Are there any obstacles in your way?

Now, focus on the sounds around you. Are cars rushing past? Can you hear any birdsong? Is there a sound that immediately attracts your attention? Think about its pitch and volume and how it changes over time.

Then, tap into any aromas around you - are there any food smells? Is there a certain smell in the air around you?

You can incorporate this short mindfulness exercise into everyday activities, like brushing your teeth, drying your hair, or eating breakfast.

5-Minute Breathing Exercise

This short breathing exercise helps you slow down and notice your surrounding environment while getting in touch with your body. This will lower anxiety and instill calm for the rest of the day.

  1. Settle yourself down in a space where you will be able to complete this 5-minute breathing exercise without disruption. Switch off your phone, or turn it on silent. Get yourself into a comfortable seated or lying position, with your spine straight.
  2. Congratulate yourself for taking the time to look after yourself. You are one step closer to lowering your anxiety and enjoying a more relaxed day.
  3. Bring your awareness to your breath. Notice how it feels as it enters your nostrils and travels down to your lungs. Take note of how your stomach rises and falls. Try placing your hand on your belly, noticing the movement there, feeling it expand with every inhalation, contracting on an out-breath.
  4. If your mind wanders, gently refocus on your breath. For these five minutes, there’s no need to worry about the anxieties of the day or the tasks you have to complete. This is your time just to be. We all have a wandering mind. If you lose focus, don’t worry; just bring yourself back when you do.
  5. Notice how your body feels as it makes contact with the surfaces - maybe you can feel your legs against a chair or your back against your mattress. If you’re sitting on a chair, notice how your feet feel as they rest gently on the ground.
  6. Thank yourself for giving yourself these five minutes of peace that we all need from time to time. You have taken the necessary steps to better your mental health and wellbeing. 

Check out this article for more top tips on relaxation techniques for anxiety.

Summary

Mindfulness is a powerful approach for managing anxiety - it calms you down and even changes your brain chemistry! But beware, too much mindfulness may have adverse effects. Nevertheless, the positives of mindfulness far outweigh the negatives.

To get started with mindfulness today, try the 3-3-3 Rule for Anxiety. Or incorporate meditation into your everyday routine through mindful walking.

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