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Mindfulness is not something that everyone can practise straight away. All-day-long thoughts whip around our heads faster than race cars in the Indy 500. In today’s media-obsessed world, information is coming at us faster than ever. As we sift tirelessly through these thoughts on a daily basis an important question comes to mind: how does one tune out the rubbish?
By rubbish, I mean the thoughts that weigh us down. Compulsive, anxious thoughts that lend nothing productive. Ranging from ‘Did I forget to lock my front door?’ to ‘Today is definitely the day I get fired.’ They are all difficult to tune out.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, around 18% of those who are over the age of 18 suffer from some form of an anxiety disorder. While pharmacists are dispensing benzodiazepine prescriptions faster than a sweepstake giving out cash on Christmas, there may be another solution: mindful meditation.
Meditation is not about turning off your thoughts – that is impossible. What meditation is about is learning to become aware of your thoughts and focusing on the present moment, allowing thoughts from the past and the future to fall away. Can this method really help soothe anxious minds? It seems the answer just might be yes.
According to a study done by Dr Elizabeth Hoge at Georgetown University Medical Centre, mindful meditation showed to help reduce stress in its participants. In addition, levels of the stress hormone (ACTH), in the blood were lower when compared to a control group.
However, it has also been shown that studies related to meditation have remained inconsistent and participants can be strongly influenced by the placebo effect.
As someone who personally has suffered from varying degrees of anxiety since I was a teenager I thought it was worth a shot. It’s simple in theory: sit down in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and breathe while consciously on the lookout for intrusive thoughts that have a nasty habit of popping into your head.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t as simple in practice. I struggled to focus, my mind continued to wander, making me frustrated and even more agitated than before I had begun. But I persisted.
After a few days of committing to meditation, the time I was able to sit and focus grew from about 30 seconds to several minutes. Now, when thoughts popped into my head instead of getting frustrated with myself I thanked myself for recognising that my mind was wandering and tuned back to my breath, back to the present moment.
That was the key: the recognition. There was no way random thoughts weren’t going to enter my head as I meditated but that fact that I was becoming aware of them more quickly and letting go of them more easily was what mattered most. Finally, I was meditating.
And I have to be honest, the more I practised the further my levels of anxiety plummeted. I was less scatterbrained, no longer forgetting where my keys, wallet or phone was. I wasn’t obsessing over whether I locked the front door because I remembered locking the door. Irrational thoughts of getting fired or that the world was going to come crumbling down around me began to dissipate.
So, can meditation be used to help alleviate anxiety? While it wasn’t a quick fix or a fool-proof solution, it seems to be plausible. I certainly felt noticeable benefits from it and over time, managing my anxiety became less daunting. The only way to know if it can work for you is to give it a try.
Helen Bradfield did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She has an ongoing interest in mental health and well-being.
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