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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation to Calm Your Thoughts

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How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation to Calm Your Thoughts

Have you heard about the benefits of mindful meditation, wanted to try it, and maybe even sat down to do it, only to find it extremely difficult?

Your mind is racing, and you can’t sit still or calm your thoughts. Do you think it’s just not for you?

Many first-time meditators feel the same, but the key, like most things in life, is to simply practice.

Starting a meditation practice can have huge benefits if you stick with it. Having a regular meditation practice is one of the most important things you can do for your overall health and well-being. You can start right now, right where you are.

When I first started meditating, the soundtrack in my head sounded a little like this…

“Shoot, I forgot to send that email, should I do that first? Is 10 minutes too long, maybe I should just do 5 today? Who’s picking up the girls tonight? Am I doing this right? How long has it been? I have so much to do and I’m just sitting here doing nothing. I’m not sure I can do this. Am I done yet?”

I know I’m not the only one who’s felt like this when they first attempted to meditate. Upon asking a client yesterday if she meditated, she replied, “Oh yeah, my head won’t let me do stuff like that.”

Most people, upon starting a meditation practice, begin to list the excuses as to why it’s not working. They’re too impatient. It’s boring. There’s too much else to do. They can’t sit still.

But that’s really the point. You have a racing mind, and you feel anxious, and you want to cultivate patience. That’s exactly what a meditation practice will help you with.

Most people have an average of 60-80,000 thoughts per day. In order to get them under control and get the most out of them, meditation is a great option.

Saying I can’t meditate because my mind races is a bit like saying I can’t run because it’s hard to breathe and my legs hurt. Like with anything new, it’s not going to be easy when you first start, but the more you do it, the better you get.

In this article, you’ll read all about meditation, the benefits you’ll reap from practicing, the biggest mistake you’re making, a basic framework to get you started, and a whole bunch of resources to keep you going – and calm that racing mind of yours.

What Is Mindful Meditation?

In short, mindful meditation is combining the practice of mindfulness and meditation.

Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present and not overly reactive. Whenever you bring awareness to the information your senses are offering, you’re being mindful.[1]

Therefore, mindfulness meditation is a practice where an individual uses a technique – such as mindfulness, or focusing their mind on a particular object, thought or activity – to train attention and awareness, and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state.

Mindful meditation has been practiced since antiquity in numerous religious traditions and beliefs, often as part of the path towards enlightenment and self realization. Since the 19th century, it has spread from its origins to other cultures where it is commonly practiced in private and business life.

Meditation is essentially about finding quiet in your mind, being in the present moment, and entering a deep state of peace and relaxation. It’s not about clearing your mind from all thoughts and feelings. It’s about learning to observe those thoughts and feelings without attachment or judgement.

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A simple definition of meditation, offering by Deepak Chopra’s Chopra Center, is “a journey from external activity to inner silence.”[2]

Mindfulness meditation is just one type. From active meditation to walking meditations, guided meditation to transcendental meditation, there are many types of practices (and even definitions). Many people feel prayer, contemplation, and mantras are all forms of meditation, and they certainly can be if they lead to a sense of inner peace and stillness.

Regardless of which form you choose, meditation has all sorts of benefits mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.

Benefits of Mindful Meditation

Mindful meditation allows you to calm your thoughts, achieve greater mental and emotional clarity, and access your true self – the one free from the weights, stresses, fears, and anxieties of the world we live in.

Studies have shown that meditation can transform your life and:

  • Lower stress levels and blood pressure[3]
  • Help you sleep better
  • Improve your overall health and relationships
  • Increase productivity
  • Create more joy and connection in your life
  • Manifest your deepest desires
  • Create an expanded sense of awareness and even..
  • Increase world peace

Research has also shown significant proven benefits in the areas of depression,[4] anxiety, and chronic pain.

Meditation is quite literally the answer for all that ails you.

Common Mistakes Made in a Meditation Practice

Want to know the biggest mistake you’re making with your meditation practice? It’s how you’re thinking about it. It’s likely your beliefs around meditation that are getting in the way, not the practice itself.

Think You’re Doing it Wrong?

You think you can’t do it.

You think it takes years of practice to receive any benefits from mindful meditation, or on the flip side, you meditated once and are frustrated you don’t see the benefits already. You think a successful meditation means you’re not having any thoughts. You think it’s just for yogis, airy fairy folks, and ancient philosophers. You think you don’t have enough time.

Here’s what I want you to know:

First and foremost, you can’t do it wrong because there’s really no one right way. In fact, as we mentioned earlier, there are hundreds of meditation practices and techniques. It’s about finding what works for you.

You don’t have to meditate every morning for 30 minutes. You can start with 5 minutes and work your way up. In fact, you could start with five mindful breaths. There, you just practiced mindful mediation! See? You can do it.

You will most likely have a multitude of thoughts while you’re meditating, and that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.

You don’t have to dress up in flowy clothes, burn incense, and chant ‘OM’ if you don’t want to. But feel free to if that’s what you connect with. You can mediate at your desk, in your car — not while driving please — or on your hike.

So stop being so hard on yourself. If you think you’re doing it wrong, your mind is going to want to throw in the towel and stop – or worse yet, not get started in the first place.

Repeat after me:

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I cannot meditate wrong. There are many different ways to mediate, and I just need to find what works for me.

Is There a One-Size-Fits-All Approach?

I’m a big fan of this premise in all of life. The thing about most advice (on any topic really) is not that it doesn’t work, it’s that it doesn’t work for everybody. Any habit you are trying to create needs to take into account your unique personality, lifestyle, and challenges.

Have you ever set out with great intentions to do something – a new diet, exercise regimen, or meditation practice — only to fall flat on your face a few days or weeks later? Then what? You beat yourself up that you didn’t do it right, that you failed.

However, you haven’t failed; you have just found something that doesn’t work for you. And now, it’s time to find something that does. What works for a friend, colleague, or spouse will not necessarily work for you, so start experimenting to see what you mind and body need from you.

There is a perfect form of mindful meditation that will work for you — you just have to find what that is.

For most people, silent meditations are difficult at first. Instead, try looking up some guided meditations on YouTube to get you started.

Some connect more with nature and find it easier to practice meditation while walking or hiking outside.

So, if you’ve tried meditation and it hasn’t worked for you, try one of the suggestions below. Try until you find something that resonates with who you are.

A Basic Framework for Mindful Meditation

To get you started, I reached out to yoga, meditation and mindfulness teacher, Libby Carstensen, to give you a basic framework for mindfulness meditation.[5]

Her first reminder?

Meditation isn’t about quieting the mind but about finding the quiet that is already there.

Here’s her advice:

“I recommend my clients begin their daily practice by starting with a simple breathing technique to calm the mind and then begin their meditation practice.”

Remember this teaching, the breath controls the mind. “Pranayama” is the yogic technology of breath control. When consciously breathing, or breathing on purpose, the breath will restore control over the mind and allow you to focus and direct your awareness.

As Yogi Bhajan, the great Kundalini Yoga master said,

“The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.”

Start With the 4-7-8 Breath

This technique, developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, forces the mind and body to focus on regulating the breath, rather than replaying your 60-80,000 thoughts.[6]

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The 4-7-8 count, also known as the relaxing breath technique, is one of the easiest to do, and the benefits are immediate. Dr. Weil has even described it as a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.”

It’s perfect for anyone looking to calm their mind before meditation or whenever you’re feeling anxious.

The 4-7-8 Technique:

  1. Rest the tip of your tongue at the top back of your teeth.
  2. Let out a deep exhale, along with a big sigh or whooshing sound.
  3. Close your mouth and slowly inhale through your nose for a count of four.
  4. Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  5. Exhale deeply though your mouth and completely for a count of eight, being sure to let out a big sigh or whooshing sound.
  6. This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

Always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation.

Now you’re ready for your meditation. Here’s a simple framework for meditation:

1. Get Clear and Set Your Intention

Why do you want to meditate? What matters to you?

I believe if your “why” is big enough, then anything is possible. Is it health, peace of mind, inspiration, forgiveness, or connection?

2. Set Yourself up for Success

Eliminate any distractions, close the door, use the bathroom, silence your phone, and ask your family to leave you alone for the next 5 to 20 minutes.

3. Correct Your Posture

Lying down is a signal to the body to go to sleep, so I don’t recommend lying down for meditation. You can sit in a chair or cross-legged in easy pose using a pillow or a bolster.

If you’re not comfortable, you won’t be able to relax. But don’t get too comfortable. The point is to focus your awareness, not to shut it down.

4. Keep a Tall Spine

Inhale, roll the shoulders up to your ears. Exhale, roll them back and down. This stacks the head atop your neck while floating the shoulders over the hips.

Consider this a neutral, tall spine. Every time you feel yourself hunching forward or slumping, reset your spine. Rest your hands comfortably on your knees or lap.

5. Close Your Eyes

With your eyes closed, direct your attention towards the brow point or the third eye.

6. Focus Your Attention on Your Breath

With your eyes closed, bring attention to your breath and notice how the body moves with each inhalation and exhalation. Slowly inhale and exhale though the nose.

If your mind begins to wander to one of your thoughts (and it will), return your focus back to your breath.

7. Relax Your Body

Begin with a body scan: start at the scalp and move your attention slowly downward, methodically relaxing and softening each part of the body.

Consciously relax your body and let go of any tension from your head, neck, or shoulders. Releasing body tension will help you open to whatever arises during your meditation.

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8. Repeat the Mantra So Hum

Take a slow, deep breath through your nose, while thinking or silently repeating the word So. Then slowly exhale through your nose while silently repeating the word Hum. Continue to allow your breath to flow easily, silently repeating So . . . Hum . . . with each inflow and outflow of the breath.

Whenever your attention drifts to thoughts in your mind, sounds in your environment, or sensations in your body, gently return to your breath, silently repeating So . . . Hum.

9. Now You’re Meditating

Continue the practice for as long as it is comfortable. Start with 5 minutes a day, working up to 20 minutes once or twice a day.

When your practice is complete, stop the repetition of the mantra and sit silently with your eyes closed, taking a moment to rest in the stillness and silence.

10. Never Run to or From Meditation

Notice if you want to quickly move onto the next thing after your meditation practice. Take a few minutes to stretch and bring your awareness back into the present moment before you rush off on all the things you need to do.

Bonus Tips for Meditation

If you’re looking for some additional ways to get going. Here are a few additional ways to start meditating.

Download an App

Apps like Headspace and Calm are both fantastic places to start. They contain guided mindful meditations and breathwork on everything from stress, anxiety, self-esteem, concentration, walking, forgiveness, gratitude, and sleep.

You can choose from shorter meditation to longer as you progress and get more comfortable. Both offer a free trial, so you have nothing to lose.

Join a Group or Class

Feel like you just can’t do this on your own yet? There are plenty of group meditation practices and classes out there.

Search for ones that are close to you. These are often held at yoga and movement studios. You can search online for local Meetup Groups, check out Meditation Finder, or Google “local meditation groups” or “local meditation classes” to find something nearby.

Surf the Internet

There are some incredible mindful meditation resources on the web, including:

  • The Chopra Center
  • Roger Gabriel, Chopra Center Educator
  • Top 25 Best Meditation Resources: Guided Meditation, Meditation Music, and Meditation Apps
  • YouTube. Just search for topics you’re interested in. Guided Meditation for Anxiety? Check. Guided walking meditation? Yep, there’s 200. Morning Meditation? Here’s one of my favorite 5-minute ones. Test a bunch and see what you like. At one point, I did a new one almost every day as I explored what worked and what didn’t work for me.
  • Deepak and Oprah’s 21 Day Meditation Experiences. I love these as you feel like you’re part of something bigger. And they are amazing. A few minutes of Oprah’s words of wisdom, followed by Deepak Chopra, and then the mediation.

Final Thoughts

It’s time to practice. It’s time to commit. It’s time to choose a method that resonates with you and try it. No more excuses.

Set a goal. Commit to a month. Too long? Commit to 10, 5, or even just 3 sessions. But start somewhere.

Studies show changes in the brain in as little as 8 weeks of mindful meditation[7], but you’ll start to feel changes in your overall mental health and well-being long before then.

In fact, start practicing mindful meditation today and you’ll begin to feel the benefits in all areas of your life. You’ll be able to bring the calmness, awareness, and clarity into each day and your relationships, career, conversations and activities. The longer you stick with it, the easier it will become and the more benefits you’ll notice.

You can do this. Your mind will calm. Your thoughts will start to slow.

You’ve got this. The time is now. Let’s get started.

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More Tips on Mindful Meditation

Featured photo credit: Mor Shani via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Tracy Kennedy

Lifehack's Personal Development Expert, a results-driven coach dedicated to helping people achieve greater levels of happiness and success.

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Published on October 15, 2021

Does Anxiety Make You Tired And Why?

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Does Anxiety Make You Tired And Why?

When you think of anxiety, several scenarios may come to mind: the endless tossing and turning of a restless night, dread over potential future events, pandemic-related overwhelm, or full-blown panic attacks. Even if you’re not diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you’ve likely experienced anxiety symptoms at some point in your life. In these situations, you might feel a queasiness in your stomach, racing heartbeat, excessive sweating, chest tightness, some tension in your jaw/neck/shoulders, or worrisome thoughts as you prepare for the worst possible scenario. But does anxiety also make you tired?

After experiencing these symptoms, you may indeed feel fatigued. The sensation could fall anywhere on the exhaustion spectrum, from feeling like you just ran a marathon and need to sleep for two days, to just a little worn down and wanting a quick nap to recover.

Below are 7 ways anxiety zaps your energy and how to restore it.

1. Stress Hormone Overload

Anxiety can make you tired via overloading your body with stress hormones. The “fight or flight” response is a key connection between anxiety and fatigue. In fact, this process is made up of three stages: Alarm, Resistance, and Exhaustion. Anxiety triggers our body systems to go into high alert. This is a natural, involuntary reaction that developed in the human brain for survival.

When humans lived with the real, imminent threat of being attacked by a predator, it made sense for our bodies to spring into action without much preparatory thought. Such dangers are rare in modern times, but our brains continue to respond in the same way they did thousands of years ago.

The hormones and chemicals that flood our bodies to prepare us for safety can both affect and be affected by several body systems, and this interaction itself contributes to exhaustion. Adrenaline and cortisol are the two most notable hormones to address here. First, adrenaline is sent out, tensing the muscles and increasing heart rate and blood pressure in preparation to run. Later in the stress response, cortisol is released, enhancing the brain’s use of glucose. This is one of our main fuel sources, so it’s no wonder this contributes to fatigue (see #2).

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You can regulate baseline levels of these stress hormones by regularly practicing yoga, breathwork, meditation, and/or engaging in aerobic exercise.[1] It’s easier to lean into these routines for relief during stress when you’ve already mastered using them during times when you feel calm.

2. Elevated Blood Sugar Levels

Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), which is shown to be associated with anxiety in diabetic patients.[2] Many people who experience hyperglycemia report feeling tired all the time regardless of their quantity or quality of sleep, nutrition, or exercise.

Although this connection has shown more prevalent and prolonged effects in diabetics, it also occurs with nondiabetics exposed to psychiatric stress.[3] In fact, for all people, the natural stress response elevates blood pressure and heart rate as well as cortisol levels, all of which increase blood sugar levels.[4] This means that anxiety causes a double-hit of exhaustion related to blood sugar fluctuations.

Instead of reaching for comfort foods like chocolate during times of stress, take a calming walk around the block. Gentle movement alone is a great stress reliever that incidentally also helps to regulate blood sugars.[5]

3. Negative Mindset

Anxiety can also make you tired because of repetitive negative thinking (RNT), which is a common symptom of anxiety. RNT involves continuous thoughts via rumination (dwelling on sad or dark thoughts focused on the past) and worry (angst regarding the future). Some researchers argue that having a longtime habit of RNT can harm the brain’s capacity to think, reason, and form memories.[6] While the brain is busy using its energy stores to fuel negative thought patterns, the energy available for these other more productive endeavors is thereby reduced.

Negative thoughts can also disrupt or prevent healthy sleep patterns, keeping our minds racing at night and effectively wreaking havoc on daytime energy. (See #7)

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Reduce these patterns by reframing your feelings over anxious thoughts. Instead of staying stuck on “what if,” focus on what you can do in the here and now. What activity can you engage in for five minutes (or more) that brings you joy? What are you grateful for, no matter what’s going on around you?

4. Digestive Issues

It’s common for people to experience both intestinal and mental issues simultaneously. This suggests a strong connection between the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is known as the gut-brain axis.[7] Simply put, what happens in our digestive tract (and as a result of what we eat) affects the brain and vice versa.

The gut microbiota is a complex population of GI tract microorganisms. When its balance is altered, the body can develop conditions that affect the gut-brain-endocrine relationship. The endocrine system produces and manages adrenaline, for starters. And the gut bacteria’s production of feel-good hormones (serotonin and dopamine—see #5) ties into this relationship as well.

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptors are also found in gut bacteria. GABA is a natural brain relaxant that makes us feel good by helping the body to unwind after a stress-induced neurotransmitter release (e.g., cortisol and adrenaline). When GABA activity is low, it leads to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and mood disorders. These are just a few of the manifestations that demonstrate how gut bacteria influences behavior. All of these contribute to feeling both physically and mentally tired.

You can minimize the symptoms of depression and anxiety by keeping your gut microbiota balanced with probiotic-rich fermented foods. Yogurt with live cultures, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, miso soup, and tempeh are great foods to include in your diet.[8]

5. Depression

Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. Research continues to indicate a complex relationship between depression and decreased serotonin—a key neurotransmitter for regulating mood and feelings of wellbeing and happiness. Anxiety is also a direct symptom of serotonin deficiency. Serotonin helps with healthy sleep, mood, and digestion.

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Serotonin is produced in the gut, almost exclusively, at an estimated 90 percent. However, a small quantity is also produced in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that is pivotal for transmitting energy balance signals. This small cone-shaped structure receives and relays signals transmitted via the vagus nerve from the gastrointestinal tract. It has a central role in mediating stress responses, regulating sleep, and establishing circadian rhythms. It senses and responds to a myriad of circulating hormones and nutrients, directly affecting our mood and energy.[9]

Dopamine is another mood-boosting neurochemical that is depleted in depression. It creates feelings of alertness and wakefulness and, when the body is operating normally, is released in higher amounts in the morning (allowing for daytime energy) and lower at night (preparing for healthy sleep). Stress is one factor that can deplete dopamine, thereby leading to depression, sleep disorders, and fatigue.

Studies show that dopamine levels in the brain can be elevated by increasing dietary intake of tyrosine and phenylalanine.[10] Both of these amino acids are naturally found in protein-rich foods like turkey, beef, eggs, dairy, soy, peas, lentils, and beans.

6. Breathing Problems

Breathlessness and anxiety are closely linked, and this is one of the ways anxiety can make you feel tired. Anxiety can lead to shallow breathing, which can cause shortness of breath while feeling breathless can exacerbate anxiety.[11] It’s a vicious cycle that often leads people to take rapid and shallow breaths, breathing into their upper chest and shoulders.

This type of breathing minimizes oxygen intake and usability. Despite comprising only two percent of the body, our brains consume 20 percent of the body’s oxygen supply. Oxygen is fuel for both mental and physical tasks. When breathing patterns compromise healthy oxygen levels, this can cause considerable fatigue.[12]

End the anxiety-fatigue cycle with focused breathing exercises. It’s important to practice this regularly while you’re not experiencing anxiety or stress, as this will help you to be prepared should a moment of breathless anxiety hit unexpectedly.

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There are several different styles of breathing exercises. There’s an easy one to try, called “Resonant Breathing.” Simply breathe in slowly through your nose as you count to five, then exhale for a count of five. Repeat this for a few minutes. It’s helpful to bring your awareness to any tension, deliberately relaxing your neck, shoulders, and jaw in particular.

7. Sleep Issues

Most of the elements we’ve already discussed inherently tie into sleep issues, which is often the reason why anxiety can make you feel tired. But it’s important to note that this is not always a directly linear cause-and-effect process. Much of it is cyclic. If we don’t get enough quality sleep, we increase our risk of excessive cortisol production, elevated blood pressure and blood sugar levels, depressed mood and mindset disorders, and dysregulation of appetite/craving hormones that affect our digestive health.

Sleep is obviously the number one antidote to feeling tired as a result of anxiety. But at the same time, many of these elements—including anxiety itself—lead to less-than-restorative sleep. We can improve our energy levels by addressing each element discussed here, as well as taking a proactive approach to our sleep health.

One simple habit to help recalibrate your circadian rhythm for healthy sleep patterns is to get outside in the morning. Sunlight exposure in the early hours of the day regulates melatonin production, helping us to feel sleepy at night.

You Don’t Have to Live Your Life Anxious and Exhausted

Times of extreme stress, like driving in heavy traffic or nerve-wracking situations like public speaking, can easily induce an anxiety response. Even “normal” everyday stressors, like feeling overwhelmed with work and home responsibilities, can build up to anxious feelings over time.

Our bodies’ response to stress and anxiety affects many of its functions in complex ways. When we unravel the interconnections of these processes, we can see how each part plays an intrinsic role in contributing to fatigue. By addressing each element individually, we can make simple lifestyle changes that resolve anxiety and diminish the ways it makes us tired as a result.

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More Tips on Coping With Anxiety

Featured photo credit: Joice Kelly via unsplash.com

Reference

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