How Meditation Can Help Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Meditation can be helpful to relive anxiety.

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Meditation, in its simplest terms, refers to learning how to pay attention. When used properly, meditation allows you to slow down and observe the world without judgment.

If you live with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), meditation can also help to reduce worrying thoughts and bring about a feeling of balance, calm, and focus. For the 6.8 million Americans who live with chronic daily anxiety, meditation can offer a way to finally relax.

What Is Meditation?

Many methods of meditation have roots in Buddhist philosophy. When you think of meditation, it probably conjures up images of a room full of people sitting cross-legged and chanting the same word repeatedly. Transcendental meditation (TM) is one form of meditation that has the goal of helping you enter a deep state of relaxation or a state of restful alertness using a simple mantra.

Because meditation helps to reduce stress and fatigue, its helpfulness for those with generalized anxiety disorder—who suffer from chronic anxiety and often insomnia—is easy to comprehend.

Press Play for Advice On Meditation

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, featuring 'Good Morning America' anchor Dan Harris, shares a quick step-by-step process for beginners to try meditation. Click below to listen now.

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Where Mindfulness Comes In

The concepts of meditation and mindfulness are very similar. While meditation typically involves trying to enter a different state of consciousness, mindfulness means becoming aware of the present moment. In this way, you might think of mindfulness as one step on the path toward meditation. Both of these practices may be helpful for reducing anxiety because they enable you to reduce worry and be aware without being fearful.

Mindfulness-Based Meditation

Meditation used in the treatment of anxiety disorders typically takes the form of mindfulness-based meditation. This type of meditation has its roots in the mindfulness movement started by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) approach.

The basic premise of the mindfulness-based stress reduction approach is to learn to detach from anxious thoughts. This is achieved by practicing awareness, identifying tension in the body, understanding your thinking patterns, and learning how to deal with difficult emotions.

MBSR is typically practiced with an instructor, but there are also online courses such as those offered by Palouse Mindfulness.

Research on Meditation and GAD

Research support for the benefits of meditation for generalized anxiety disorder has been positive. A 2013 randomized controlled trial was conducted with 93 individuals with DSM-IV diagnosed GAD comparing an 8-week manualized mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) group program with an attention control (stress management education, or SME).

MBSR was associated with significantly greater reductions in anxiety for three of the four study measures. Participants also showed a greater increase in positive self-statements. Additionally, a 2012 meta-analysis indicated strong support for mindfulness meditation for anxiety.

How to Practice Meditation for GAD

If you're living with generalized anxiety, practicing daily meditation may help you to overcome anxiety and reduce tension in your body. The key to learning to practice meditation is to accept the world around you from a place of curious observation. If you've ever taken a yoga class, you are already well on your way to practicing meditation. Follow these simple steps to get started with meditation today.

Steps for Mindfulness Meditation

  1. Sit upright in a chair and place your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Begin paying attention to your breath. Don't try to change how you are breathing; simply observe your body as you inhale and exhale.
  3. You might feel compelled to shift your focus elsewhere. Resist this urge and continue to focus on your breathing.
  4. Anxious thoughts may pass through your mind. Acknowledge them, but then bring yourself back to awareness of your breathing.
  5. Continue this quiet, nonjudgmental observation for about 10 minutes.
  6. Open your eyes and notice how you feel. Don't evaluate, just observe.

Keep in mind that you don't need a lot of time to meditate. When you're first getting started, try to carve out a few minutes each day. You can gradually increase that time as you learn how to relax and discover what it feels like to be calm. This meditative practice may soon spill into other areas of your life, as you notice yourself observing rather than reacting during difficult situations or times of worry.

GAD primarily involves unrelenting worry. With meditation, you can learn to accept those worries without letting them upset you, which is likely to diminish your stress.

What If I Can't Meditate?

There are many reasons why you might find it hard to meditate or be mindful. You might have trouble observing without judging or you may feel impatient or as though there is "too much to do" to be sitting around breathing. Some people have trouble doing nothing, as they are used to always being on the go. Other times, you might find that you can't stop the negative thoughts from intruding as you try to relax.

The best advice to overcome these obstacles is twofold:

  • Recognize that the process takes time. Don't expect your first meditation session to be easy. As silly as it may sound, it takes practice to learn how to do nothing. Eventually, it will come easier.
  • Make time even when you're busy. Schedule meditation into your day just like your would for your job or an appointment. Over time, you can mindfully and intentionally turn mediation into a habit. Sometimes, when you've got too much to do and can't fit in time for a quiet moment, you may find afterward that the quiet moment helped you to return to your day more centered and better at problem-solving.

A Word From Verywell

As you begin to practice meditation, ask yourself questions such as the following:

  • Were you able to observe your anxious thoughts without judging them?
  • Did you achieve a state of focused observation?
  • Did you feel relaxed? 

Keep a journal to track your progress and note if your anxiety is reduced. If, over time, you still face troubling anxiety that is chronic and severe, be sure to talk with your doctor about treatment options.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

  2. Ngô TL. Review of the effects of mindfulness meditation on mental and physical health and its mechanisms of action. Sante Ment Que. 2013;38(2):19-34. doi:10.7202/1023988ar

  3. Hoge EA, Bui E, Marques L, et al. Randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for generalized anxiety disorder: Effects on anxiety and stress reactivity. J Clin Psychiatry. 2013;74(8):786-792. doi:10.4088/JCP.12m08083

  4. Edenfield TM, Saeed SA. An update on mindfulness meditation as a self-help treatment for anxiety and depression. Psychol Res Behav Manag. 2012;5:131-141. doi:10.2147/PRBM.S34937

  5. Hoge EA, Bui E, Palitz SA, et al. The effect of mindfulness meditation training on biological acute stress responses in generalized anxiety disorder. Psychiatry Res. 2018;262:328-332. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2017.01.006

Additional Reading

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."