Helping anxiety in anxious times
From a clinical perspective, there is a difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is what we feel when faced with a genuine threat. Anxiety is more of a subjective perception of threat that we can’t see, hear or touch but which, nonetheless, feels very real to the person experiencing it.
Like stress, anxiety has its origins in the evolutionary mismatch between our social environment and our biological makeup.
Much has changed in our way of life since the paleolithic era, and the pace of change has accelerated intensely in the 21st century. Yet there has been little change in our evolutionary programming due to the far slower changes in our genetic makeup.
Whenever we feel anxiety or fear, we are experiencing the effects of a hyper-stimulated area of the brain called the amygdala. It’s responsible for activating our alarm bells and generating a hyper-vigilant state known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Part of this response is the activation of the nervous system to get us ready for fighting or fleeing. Another is the simultaneous release of neurotransmitters that trigger feelings of anxiety, putting us on red alert for danger and potential threats.
But what determines whether our feelings of vigilance are necessary and appropriate or not?
Ultimately it comes down to whether the assessment of life-threatening risk merits the potentially harmful and often damaging consequences of turning our fear response on.
In almost every case, chronic activation of the ‘fight or flight’ response is causing us a lot more harm than good.
When we experience such ‘trait anxiety,’ as it is known, our brain responds in a different way to outside stimulus, and this creates a perception of fear that feels very real.
Arbitrary things can seem more than a little menacing. We become exhausted by the constant sense of vigilance that we feel is required to deal with all the potential threats in the world. Despite feeling very necessary, it is a disorganised attempt at coping with things that aren’t really a threat at all.
And yet the feelings of apprehension and dread that can accompany it are often alarming, overwhelming, and sometimes even paralysing. It can be extremely debilitating and makes it very difficult to enjoy a calm, creative and productive life.
It seems almost all of us experience low levels of anxiety, and for many of us, the disorienting effects of trait anxiety appear to be our default setting. One in six Europeans now suffers from a clinically defined anxiety disorder, and it’s nearly twice as prevalent in young people as it is in older generations.
The fact that this condition is now so common, particularly in the developed world, demonstrates just how conditioned the chronic hyperactivation of the fight or flight response has become. Meditation for anxiety can’t stop the source, but it will help with the symptoms.
It is essential that we begin to understand the factors that are causing us to be on red alert. Until we can understand it, and rediscover equilibrium, we are going to find ourselves subject to those familiar but unnecessary feelings of urgency and worry.
Why do we experience anxiety?
Because the process is all happening in the autonomic branch of the nervous system, this will become our conditioned response. And because it is conditioned, your mind, body and nervous system will start responding to the perceived threat even before you have become consciously aware of it.
Whenever the nervous system becomes overstimulated, the memory of trauma becomes enlivened, and the corresponding alert signals reach our amygdala before the cortex processes them. This part of the brain, where we get a lot of conscious experience from, receives the information later.
As a result, our conscious awareness is merely the witness to our already activated anxiety response programming. It has little chance of intervening in any meaningful way.
The amygdala is so sensitive, that if you flash a picture of something fear-inducing to someone with an anxious disposition – even subliminally for a millisecond – their amygdala immediately goes into overdrive at the sight of the image.
It seems an anxious person’s amygdala is ready to pounce on any fragment of information and twist it into a signal for red alert even when the conscious mind doesn’t register that there is anything amiss.
Unfortunately, the process becomes greatly aggravated when we are subject to intermittent stress in our lives.
What are the other causes and triggers of anxiety?
The first and most likely cause would be a traumatic event that has been stored within the nervous system. The deep impressions this creates will cause our nervous response to become hyper-stimulated by any stimulus that matches, or is close to, the initial trigger event.
During any traumatic event, there is severe impairment of a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for the formation and recall of memory. As a result, anything vaguely related to the perceived threat gets red-flagged and immediately generates a chain reaction of fear.
In many cases, there will have been a traumatic event in our lives when we were younger. Sometimes it occurs when we’re older, and sometimes, we develop this anxiety patterning from our mother while in the womb.
However, even though background stress is usually an aggravator, rather than a cause, sometimes chronic levels of stress can overwhelm our nervous system so much that it causes us to habituate chronic anxiety patterning despite an absence of any significantly traumatic events in our lives.
When we are under constant demand, our reactions to all manner of stimuli become exaggerated.
In our modern-day lives, our nervous systems are continually being aggravated by seemingly harmless things.
For some, just the simple act of watching television or drinking caffeine can push us over the edge into feelings of unnecessary anxiety.
Likewise, too much adrenaline and noradrenaline pumping around the system makes us jumpy, and chronic levels of movement and stimulation, whether it be the movement of our eyes while watching the telly, or of limbs during exercise, will get the nervous system stimulated with these hormones.
Throw in all of our smartphones, tablets, social commitments, dietary stimulants, leisure pursuits, work chores and other life responsibilities; there is no end to the potential triggers we are exposed to.
Any of these triggers, when combined with all of the effects and influences we are subject to in life, may keep us in a state of constant worry and hyper-vigilance.
Stress plays an additional role. Our breathing is affected when the stress response is engaged. Activation of the fight or flight response causes us to take short, sharp breaths in preparation for danger. When such activation becomes chronic, we only ever tend to use the top third of our lungs creating a permanent state of hyperventilation.
This results in a poor exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, depriving our bodies of an essential function of life. The physiological effect of a deficiency in carbon dioxide can lead to panic attacks, insomnia, and extreme fatigue and a lack of oxygen will deprive our organs and muscles of resources vital for their effective functioning. This low-level hyperventilation will lead to increased heart rate, palpitations and a sense of anxiety and a feeling of being out of control.
When you become centred, the balance of power shifts from the amygdala to the pre-frontal cortex, so that you govern your emotions rather than the other way round.
Ray Dalio, founder of the investment firm Bridgewater Associates, USA
How can Vedic meditation help with anxiety?
As one of the most effective anxiety reduction techniques, Vedic meditation works by using the sounds of mantras that are ideally suited for each individual’s nervous system. The gentle repetition of these sounds within the mind has a soothing effect on the entire system.
As a result, any hyper-activation of the nervous system we may be experiencing begins to calm down and in its place comes a sense of spaciousness and perspective.
Think of meditation and anxiety as opposing forces. By practicing one we cancel out the other and can free ourselves from the bonds of fear.
And not just temporarily. The more we practise, the more this balanced functioning begins to imbue our everyday being.
By allowing ourselves to rest at levels that are far deeper than anything we experience during sleep, we can break through the programming that is causing us to be conditioned with continual alertness.
We also find that within seconds of effortlessly repeating the mantra in our minds, the entire cortex of the brain enters a super coherent alpha state. This high-level brain patterning correlates strongly with a very significant reduction in anxious thoughts and sensations.
Vedic meditation for anxiety also brings balance to our production of neurotransmitters and hormones such as serotonin and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which have been found to be implicated in general anxiety disorders.
And if somewhere in your mind, you secretly feel like your anxiety is serving you well, one reason may be the cognitive distortions that develop during anxiety. These distortions create convincing internal dialogues that assure us our anxiety is bringing a net benefit. We become convinced our anxiety is keeping us safe and secure.
If that’s the case, there’s no need to worry. Vedic meditation actually brings about much more alertness. Our greater levels of presence and perceptual acuity give us a much greater ability to detect genuine threats and our enhanced reaction times mean we are better able to take corrective action when they do occur. Thus we can allow ourselves to rest at any time genuine danger isn’t upon us.
Because our system is balanced, we are content to flow in the stream of life at all times, confident in our ability to detect and respond to challenges and threats when the need arises.
The result is that decision making becomes easier, we feel less preoccupied, much less restless, we have more energy, and we enjoy much better sleep.
Vedic meditation works brilliantly in this instance because it requires no concentration or focusing so that you can use this meditation for anxiety with a much more relaxed approach.
As well as all the benefits of pacifying our overstimulated nervous system, Vedic meditation goes one step further and starts bringing fundamental balance to the responsivity of the amygdala. This may be the reason why this type of meditation has been shown to be at least twice as effective as other relaxation or meditative techniques in reducing the symptoms of anxiety.
The results are consistent and profound. Blood plasma lactate levels, which are always elevated in people with anxiety and which are considered the classic marker for it, fall by a hugely significant average of 33%.
Tests using Galvanic Skin Resistance (GSR) to measure how relaxed someone is, have shown that, during Vedic meditation, the GSR levels increase by between 250% and 500%. This is more than double what we experience during sleep.
And the results last well into our day.
To be free of incessant worry and anxiety is within reach of all of us.
As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Anyone who has experienced irrational fear in their life will surely agree!
After about a month of meditating daily I began to see big differences, I could seemingly now cope with the anxiety and almost control it. When my chest was thumping or I had butterflies in my stomach I no longer felt scared - there was a knowingness that my body was releasing adrenaline and it was simply my wrecked nervous system making itself known while I began the repair process. ¹Meditation was repairing my body and it became the foundation upon which I started rebuilding my life in a way that made me feel good about myself and the world.
Rich, Investment Banker, London
Meditation for anxiety: What's the proof?
Vedic meditation results in high levels of EEG coherence throughout the brain, which has been found to correlate with many beneficial effects, including emotional stability, self-awareness and lower levels of neuroticism and anxiety.
Plasma lactate, which is a reliable marker for anxiety when levels are elevated, tends to fall by an average of 33% when we practise Vedic meditation, and our levels remain lower for a significant period after the meditation has been completed.
Vedic meditation results in respiratory efficiency, which brings a greater sense of calm and control. It has also been shown to deliver relaxation effects that are twice as strong as that which we experience during rest.
Unsurprisingly, Vedic meditation results in a very significant 42% reduction in sleep disorders.
Overall, Vedic meditation has been shown to be 250% more effective at reducing anxiety than other anxiety reduction techniques.