Anxiety is a clinical mental disorder that can cause chronic worry, obsession, intrusive thoughts, and even panic in someone who is diagnosed. As a broad category, anxiety can include panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder, in addition to phobias. Anxiety is the leading mental health disorder among adults in the US. Many other adults who may not meet the specific criteria for making anxiety disorder an official diagnosis experience symptoms of anxiety which are disruptive in their lives.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation as well as a practice of its own. The practice includes elements like focusing on the breath, paying attention to thoughts, noticing feelings, practicing non-judgment, and more. Involving a focus on the mind as well as the body, mindfulness brings awareness to the internal environment while allowing someone to make peace with the way they react to the external environment. For people living with anxiety, the use of mindfulness has proven to be helpful in reducing the stress anxiety can cause.
Though mindfulness has undergone extensive scientific studies, few have been able to decidedly say whether or not mindfulness truly changes the way the anxious brain works. The University of Waterloo conducted an experiment to investigate how effective mindfulness is on specific parts of the experience of anxiety. Two groups of college students were given different tasks to test the wandering of their minds through various lab tests and computer tasks. One of the groups was given mindfulness meditation training which focused on the breath. The other group listened to an audiobook which did not have to do with mindfulness, meditation, or breathing.
The group who participated in the mindfulness meditation training didn’t actually see their thoughts change. The intrusive thoughts which characterize anxiety still happened. However, there was an interesting difference between the two groups. For the group who listened to an audiobook, they experienced more intrusive thoughts after the study, as well as no change in their tendency to have a wandering mind about the future- another hallmark of anxiety. Those who listened to the mindfulness audiobook, on the other hand, did not have an increase in their intrusive thoughts, but they didn’t have a decrease in their intrusive thoughts. What the meditation group did experience was less wandering of the mind as well as more distraction. Distracting thoughts is better for someone with anxiety because it can help them focus on something other than their intrusive thoughts.
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