Can Mindfulness Meditation Treat Anxiety Disorder?


Meditation, which was once a practice for few people who were attracted to oriental philosophy to find spiritual enlightenment, in recent years, has become a worldwide trend as a universal panacea for many ills. School and university students, business people, NFL players, Oprah, US marines and even prison inmates have practiced it as a way to ease stress and anxiety.

Mindfulness meditation is a way to focus one’s mind on the present moment without emitting any judgment. Here is a simple mindfulness exercise called the 3-minute breathing space (TMBS):

  • You spend one minute focusing on your body in a wide sense. The totality of your physical being. (Wide)
  • In the second minute you focus on your breathing in a more specific and concentrated fashion. Focusing on your lungs, mouth or nostrils. (Narrow)
  • During the third minute you observe your experience of your body and your breathing like in the first step, in a wider fashion. (Wide)

Jon Kabat-Zinn and Richard J Davidson are two of the most well known promoters of meditation and mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn is a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He has created a program based on meditation to help people cope with stress, anxiety and pain. Davidson, an American psychologist, and his and his colleagues have led studies at the University of Wisconsin with several Buddhists monks who were master mediators. Both Kabat-Zinn and Davidson advocate that mindfulness can help lower people’s anxiety.

Mindfulness has become a hot trend and for some a fad to reap benefits from. Every year there is a new title published on mindfulness. Among these titles there are those claiming that this practice can help people with anxiety. Some publishers take advantage of the popularity of the terms “mindfulness” and “mindful” adding them to their book titles: Mindful work, Mindful Universe, Mindful Eating, Mindful Parenting, Mindful Teaching, Mindful Politics, etc.

Among all these titles, two in particular show you how a worthy topic, when pushed to its extreme, can become absurd: Mindfulness for Dogs, and Mindfulness for Cats. The book promises that you can “Learn from your canine” (or feline) “how to live in the present and approach every day with a calm and positive attitude.”

It is true that meditation is beneficial to your health. It helps you relax your body and calm your thoughts. Meditation and mindfulness are useful to improve your state of mind and maintain a serene attitude toward life. However, when you are suffering from anxiety disorder, meditation and mindfulness are not the right solutions.

The promoters of mindfulness are biased because they have become too fond of oriental wisdom and practices and have attributed an excessive beneficial power to what meditation can do. It is true that studies suggest that regular meditation has helped lowering anxiety among some individuals. However, mindfulness cannot stop an anxiety attack nor can it prevent or cure it as some suggest.

The confusion is the result of an error at the logical level. Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland and Richard Fisch explain this epistemological error in their book, Change: Principles of Problem Formulation and Problem Resolution (1974), pp. 38-39. The authors make a distinction between the terms “difficulties” and “problems”. According to them, a difficulty is an “undesirable state of affairs” that can be solved with common sense and “no special problem solving skills are necessary”. However, they “…talk about problems when referring to impasses, deadlocks, knots…” In other words, a problem is a state of affairs that have resisted change despite all the efforts of people involved.

Meditation and mindfulness can be helpful with a difficulty. For example stress is a difficulty. You may have a tough day at work and come home stress out and angry. You can sit down, deep breathe and meditate to calm your thoughts and ease your emotions. The solution to this difficulty is common sense.

However, anxiety is not a difficulty that can be solved with common sense meditation and mindfulness. Anxiety is a major problem that requires problem-solving skills that are not necessarily common sense. On the contrary, the solution for anxiety must be counterintuitive!

It is possible for some individuals suffering from anxiety disorder to ease their symptoms with mindfulness practice over a long period of time. However, what if there is a more effective and efficient way to overcome anxiety that takes less efforts and less time? There is an efficacious method for anxiety disorder!

Anxiety Freaks Me Out!

Anxious woman

A young North American woman, let’s call her Christine, requested an appointment for online consultation. She contacted me because she suffered from anxiety attacks, insomnia, and she also worried constantly. She explained that she had been anxious since she was an adolescent. Christine used to wake up several times at night thinking of different social situations that caused her anxiety. Another source of her anxiety was her relationship with her boyfriend. As she puts it, “all this freaks me out!”

Her symptoms were the typical of people with anxiety: over all tension, tightness in chest, shaky hands, dizziness and nausea.

Christine coped with her anxiety in different ways. She tried to avoid the typical anxiety-producing situations and when she couldn’t avoid them, Christine used to distract herself by watching TV as a way to get her mind off worries. At times she would fight her anxiety with positive thoughts such as “I should not get so anxious. I can be calm.” At other times she would also practice deep breathing in order to sooth her anxious feelings.

I helped Christine to overcome her anxiety in total of five online sessions. First we look at her strategies (avoidance, distraction, deep breathing and positive thinking) that didn’t give any lasting results. Then, based on our consultation, we arrived to few strategies that she started putting into practice. After several weeks Christine noticed a slight improvement and from then on she became more confidant about herself.

Almost two years later I emailed her to see how she was doing. Her reply showed that the positive changes were long lasting even though she had been going through a very stressful time! Here is Christine’s reply:

“Things are going well! I haven’t had an anxiety attack since our sessions and my anxiety rarely flares up these days. Since moving on from (a country) I’m able to reflect and realize that the isolation of where I lived greatly contributed to my anxiety. Also my partner at the time was a major contributor. I’ve since moved on from (that country) and that relationship and am feeling much better. As my confidence rises so does my ability to control my anxiety. A testament to this has been my state of mind for the past 9 months which have been some of the most stressful of my life so far. I’ve maintained ambition and a positive attitude through it all. I have not had to use any of the techniques you taught me in almost a year and a half. Thank you again so much for your help in such a difficult time.”

Kendra Fisher’s Experience with Anxiety, Depression, Panic Attacks, & Agoraphobia

Kendra Fisher, tells her story in the following way:

Kendra grew up in Kincardine, Ontario. With the support of her family and town behind her, Kendra quickly achieved great successes in her hockey career. Years ago, when faced with the opportunity to realize her dream of goal-tending for Team Canada, Kendra was diagnosed with Severe Anxiety Disorder coupled with Severe Panic Attacks, Depression and Agoraphobia; forcing her to leave the National Program in order to seek help to learn how to live with what had become a crippling disease. Kendra now shares her personal journey and has joined efforts to bring Mental Health issues to the forefront. It is her hope that her story will offer both hope and promise to others dealing with Mental Illness.

In an interview, Kendra explained what she wanted from her therapy:

“I was just looking for a cure. I wanted to be fixed. I wanted to be better and I wanted to get on with my life.”

She explains that these wishes were unrealistic. Obviously she must have been told by her psychologist that her goal of getting cured and getting on with her life was not possible. All she could do was to cope. Unfortunately, Fisher accepted that prognosis.

She also says that she was resistant to therapy. This is not a negative trait. An anxious and fearful person must be resistant. If she is not resistant to change, she does not have anxiety and phobias. Resistance to therapy and change is a characteristic of anxiety-related conditions.

So she began psychotherapy and was put on antidepressants. After 5-6 years of treatment with “every form of therapy” and reading about her condition, she decided to make her anxiety public. Often she speaks about her experience as an advocate for mental health. Her goal is to give hope and a positive message to all who may suffer from anxiety or any other mental health problems.

I applaud Fisher’s commitment in speaking about her problem. Often, as she explains, she has panic attacks in front of the audiences. Her tenacity and willingness to promote mental health awareness are praiseworthy. However, her message to others is besaically all they can do is cope. After 10 years of taking medication and psychotherapy, Kendra Fisher’s message is not totally positive:

“This is something that I have to live for the rest of my life.”

Kendra Fisher would be happy to know that there is a solution to her problem. She can overcome all her anxiety-related conditions once and for all. She can close this chapter of her life. She can get on with her life . Once she overcomes her anxiety, her message would become a more powerful one: she would become a living example of someone that had gone through anxiety, panic, depression and fear but had conquered them all. Now, this would be a powerful message of hope to others.

What is the Difference Between Fear, Anxiety & Panic?

fear panic anxiety

There are some subtle but important differences between fear, anxiety and panic. Knowing this differentiation is crucial because it determines how you go about solving it. It’s like coming across a locked door. You look at it carefully and believe that its lock looks identical to a similar door. You insert a key in the lock and try to open it, but it doesn’t. You ought to remember that each lock, no matter how similar or identical in appearance needs an appropriate key.

So let’s see how fear, anxiety and panic differ from each other. You perceive an stimuli, an object or a situation as dangerous and menacing. This perception triggers the emotion of fear which, in turn, generates a physiological reaction, the flight or fight response. This physiological response is anxiety. Thus, a perception leads to an emotion which then leads to a physiological reaction.

Anxiety activates your body and helps you to cope with fear. However, when anxiety becomes too intense and goes beyond the normal threshold (which is unique to each individual) it generates a loss of control of your own reactions and can lead to panic.
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Symptoms of a Panic Attack

These are the symptoms of a panic attack:

  • a racing or pounding heartbeat
  • dizziness and lightheadedness
  • shortness of breath (“I can’t catch my breath”)
  • chest pains or a “heaviness” in the chest
  • flushes or chills
  • numbness or tingling in the hands, feet, legs, arms
  • jumpiness, trembling, twitching muscles
  • sweaty palms, flushed face
  • terror
  • fear of losing control
  • fear of a stroke that will lead to disability
  • fear of dying
  • fear of going crazy
  • abdominal discomfort or nausea
  • feeling of chocking
  • feeling unreal or being detached from oneself
  • fear of going crazy

The Hormones

Now let’s look at the hormones that make all these changes happen.

Epinephrine. Most probably you know this hormone by its other name: adrenaline. Epinephrine is the crucial component of fight-or-flee response, acting as a tonic activator of cardiac and respiratory systems.

Dopamine plays important roles in motivation, arousal and motor control.

Testosterone is responsible for peak physical performance. High levels of the stress hormone cortisol play a critical role in blocking testosterone’s effects.

Cortisol’s primary functions are to increase blood sugar and suppress the immune system.

Serotonin, also known as the “happy” hormone, induces an overall sense of well-being.

Endorphin is another “feel good” hormone produced during exercise, pain, love making. It is our own body’s natural painkiller.