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The Science Behind Meditation for Anxiety Relief

Anxiety disorders are among the most common mood disorders in the United States and Europe (1, 2). While it’s normal to experience brief bouts of anxiety from time to time, chronic anxiety is highly debilitating and disabling. 

Many people with anxiety are quick to seek medication as a sort of “band-aid,” but there are alternatives that can help as well. Believe it or not, mediation is arguably one of the best natural anxiety solutions anecdotally; the science behind why that is has started to unveil some intriguing insights into what makes us anxious and how we can quash those feelings. 

What Causes Anxiety?

Distinct neural patterns are continually being tied with states of fear as opposed to anxiety. It’s essential that your brain can make the distinction between fear-­specific and anxiety-specific responses. 

For example, if you go out for stroll around the neighborhood and suddenly see a masked stranger running after you with a knife, chances are your brain is going to tell you to run for your life. This is called the “fight-or-flight” response, a necessary survival mechanism in many life forms that is largely controlled by norepinephrine.

Once you escape the imminent danger, the fear-inducing cue goes away (for the most part). 

The conundrum is that high levels of norepinephrine are also associated with chronic anxiety.   

As such, anxiety is like perpetual fear or apprehension that something “bad” is about to happen. Over time, this can cause people to avoid social situations, obsess over small details, panic about mundane things, and become restless.

So, how does mediation fit into the picture of anxiety?

Meditation for Treating Anxiety

It’s generally accepted that depression is caused by dysfunction of the serotonin neurotransmitter system (3). Anxiety, however, is a bit more complicated from a neuroscience standpoint since it appears to be governed by a handful of chemical imbalances in the brain, notably gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), norepinephrine, and corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) (4, 5).

In general, depression is a result of concern over things that happened in the past, whereas anxiety is a disorder of anticipation and fear for what lies ahead. 

Question: What does meditation require? 

Answer: Focus on the present moment. 

See where this is going?

The physiological response to mediation more or less directly counteracts that of anxiety (6). 

Whereas anxiety tends to reduce blood oxygen content in the brain, meditation does the opposite; whereas anxiety increases the frequency of higher frequency brainwaves, meditation does the opposite; whereas anxiety increases CRF and norepineprhine, meditation does the opposite. 

Reduce Anxiety with Meditation

Arguably the biggest hurdle for widespread adoption of mediation to treat anxiety is that people have a tough time “emptying their mind” and relaxing deeply enough to achieve a restorative mediation session. 

However, there are ways to overcome that obstacle. Some people find that herbal medicine like CBD oil allows them to calm their mind before meditating. The good thing about CBD oil is that it only takes a few drops to work and it’s rapidly absorbed, so you can use it “on-demand” for anytime of the day you want to unwind and ease whatever apprehensions you may have. 

Regardless what’s stopping you from trying meditation to relieve anxiety, you owe it to yourself to give it an honest shot. There are virtually no negatives, and infinitely many positives, that can come from it.