By Deepak Chopra, MD
Fear is a negative emotion unless you are facing an actual threat and need to fight or flee. The usefulness of fear is minimal in daily life, particularly in the form of anxiety. Stressful events can produce short-term anxiety in almost everyone, which disappears after the event. But for an estimated 6.8 million Americans with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), anxiety is a chronic condition they can’t shut off. All of us know people we accept as “born worriers,” but in reality being in a state of chronic anxiety can severely limit their daily activity.
You probably know already if you worry excessively. Almost nothing is free from worry, in fact, if you have chronic anxiety, even the smallest thing can trigger it. You find yourself with fearful thoughts about finances, family, your health, and what’s happening at work. Some days you’d rather hide under the covers.
The first thing to realize is that reality isn’t what’s actually worrying you, but it’s your fixed habit of mind that is causing you to respond to everything with anxiety. Second, you need to look rationally at the anxiety response and concede that you are not improving it by feeling anxious. This seems obvious to non-worriers, but somewhere inside, many “born worriers” believe they are taking care of situations that others are overlooking, like whether they remembered to lock up the house or turn off the gas stove. Any trigger can provoke worry, so the question is how to prevent this from happening.
Because of the mind-body connection, you should also consider the physical side of anxiety. Even if you have accepted worry as a tolerable trait, it exacts a price in the form of insomnia, easy startle response, fatigue, irritability, muscle tension, headaches, inability to relax, trembling, twitching, feeling out of breath, and various stomach and digestive problems. If these persist for more than six months after something bad has happened to you, a diagnosis of GAD may be appropriate. Even if your symptoms are manageable, you shouldn’t have to live this way. Anticipating the worst, which has become a habit even when no threat is in sight, distorts how you approach work, family, and the world in general.
There are many theories about what causes chronic anxiety, but they are as diverse as explanations for depression. It’s more useful to consider how to retrain your mind so that your worry subsides and is replaced by a normal undisturbed mood. The standard medical advice is to take medication (usually some form of tranquilizer), augmented by talking to a therapist. However, self-care has other tools, such as meditation, diet, sleep, massage, and exercise that you can pursue on your own.
One aspect of anxiety is racing thoughts that won’t go away. Meditation helps with this part of the problem by making the overactive mind quiet. Instead of buying into your fearful thoughts, you can start identifying with the silence that exists between every mental action. Through regular practice, you experience that you are not simply your thoughts and feelings. You can detach yourself from these to rest in your own being. This involves remaining centered, and if a thought or outside trigger pulls you out of your center, your meditation practice allows you to return there again.
Being able to center yourself is a skill that anyone can learn, once they have the intention and the experience of what it feels like. Anxious people often shy away from meditation for various reasons. “I can’t meditate” is code for feeling too restless to sit still or having too many thoughts while trying to meditate. With a patient teacher, these objections can be overcome. Anyone can meditate, even if the first sessions are short and need to be guided. Being on tranquilizers, which for some anxious people has become the only way they can cope, isn’t a block to meditation.
Numerous scientific studies have found meditation to be effective for treating anxiety. One study, published in thePsychological Bulletin, combined the findings of 163 different studies. The overall conclusion was that practicing mindfulness or meditation produced beneficial results, with a substantial improvement in areas like negative personality traits, anxiety and stress. Another study focused on a wide range of anxiety, form cancer patients to those with social anxiety disorder, and found mindfulness to be an effective management tool.
The researchers analyzed 39 studies totaling 1,140 participants and discovered that the anxiety-reducing benefits from mindfulness might be enjoyed across such a wide range of conditions because when someone learn mindfulness, they learn how to work with difficult and stressful situations.
All mental activity has to have a physical correlation in the brain, and this aspect has been studied in relation to anxiety. Chronic worriers often display increased reactivity in the amygdala, the area of the brain associated with regulating emotions, including fear. Neuroscientists at Stanford University found that people who practiced mindfulness meditation for eight weeks were more able to turn down the reactivity of this area. Other researchers from Harvard found that mindfulness can physically reduce the number of neurons in this fear-triggering part of the brain.
Here’s a simple, practical way to take advantage of all this knowledge: