How Does Mindfulness and Relaxation Lead to Lower Levels of Anxiety?

~3 minute read

Feeling nervous for a big test or an upcoming championship is common, and a little bit of pre-test or pre-competition nerves can even be a sign of dedication. However, spending too much time or energy worrying about school, sports, or everyday tasks can be draining and might be a sign of anxiety. 

When you’re anxious, your brain and body send signals to each other to let you know that something’s not quite right. One way they do this is by activating your fight-or-flight response, which is an automatic physiological reaction to a perceived threat. The possibility of facing danger activates your nervous system and sets off different alarm bells and physical sensations, like increased heart rate, sweaty hands, dilated pupils, or flushed/pale face.

Anxiety disorders usually cause your flight-or-fight response to work in overdrive, meaning this response happens frequently, intensely, or at unnecessary times. Constantly being in flight-or-fight is equivalent to being stuck in survival mode. You might feel like you’re always in danger and your mind is going a million miles a second, or it might feel like something terrible is always just about to happen. This is your body’s way of saying, “Hey, I’m a little too stressed out right now.” The more you’re in flight-or-fight mode, the trickier it can be to pinpoint exactly how anxiety is affecting your life and what to do to feel more centered. 

Mindfulness and relaxation act as antidotes to many symptoms of anxiety by reassuring your mind and body that you aren’t in danger. Here are some reasons why mindfulness can help you feel more calm and centered. 

  1. Mindfulness helps you sit with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings without judging, suppressing, or encouraging them. Allowing yourself the space to feel and acknowledge your worries, irritations, painful memories, and other difficult thoughts and emotions helps them go away. Even if it feels counterintuitive, thinking about what’s worrying you can actually help you release, rather than reinforce those worries.
  2. Mindfulness gives you the chance to explore the reasons behind your anxiety. Instead of fighting with yourself over your stress, let your mind explore them. This practice allows you to understand what it is that’s causing you to worry.
  3. Mindfulness helps you separate yourself from your worries so they don’t consume you. When you give yourself the space to start to understand where your stress comes from, you give yourself the chance to recognize that the stress isn’t always a part of you, but rather a reaction to certain worries or fears.

Similarly, relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, visualization, yoga, and positive mantras can help you turn off your flight-or-fight response. Here are some ways you can practice mindfulness and relaxation to manage symptoms of anxiety.

  1. Stay in the present moment. Practice noticing your surroundings, including the sites, sounds, and sensations you’re surrounded by. This practice is to help you bring your attention to your environment without judgment. Noticing how things around you change helps you recognize how your own mind and body hold onto certain thoughts and feelings rather than let them flow. For instance, try taking a moment to find 3 blue-colored objects around you. Notice the blue sky, a blue t-shirt someone is wearing, and a blue sign and try to feel yourself become more grounded in your environment rather than ruminating in your mind.
  2. Focus on your breath. Breathing is a powerful relaxation tool and signals to your body that you are safe. Try taking a big breath and notice how your muscles and mind react.
  3. Bring attention to your body. Notice different sensations in your body and release tension in areas that feel particularly tight–this might include your jaw, shoulders, neck, hands, and feet.

Stress and anxiety can make you feel like you’re trapped inside your mind and body. The beauty of relaxation and meditation techniques is that they allow you to see your thoughts and feelings from a different point of view (e.g. witnessing your thoughts come and go without judgment during meditation). When you’re able to see your thoughts from a different perspective, it’s easier to dismiss negativity and choose how to respond to stress rather than letting your worries take over. The goal of meditation and relaxation isn’t to keep you from experiencing stress or to help you avoid your fears but rather to give you the tools to respond to them with peace.

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