Peace of mind
Calm Your Mind
Most stress-reduction techniques will help relieve moderate anxiety, says Edmund J. Bourne, Ph.D., a psychologist practicing in Hawaii and California and the author of Natural Relief for Anxiety (New Harbinger Publications, 2004). This can include abdominal breathing, yoga, tai chi, guided visualizations, or even just taking a break two or three times every day to relax, take a walk, or imagine yourself in a peaceful place.
Mindfulness-based meditation, which has proved especially helpful in reducing anxiety, is now being taught in many hospitals and health centers across the country. Studies have found that, among other benefits, it can lower breathing rate, reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and increase activity in the left frontal area of the brain, which is associated with a positive mental state and lowered anxiety levels. In fact, a recent Canadian study of cancer patients who participated in a mindfulness-based stress-reduction program found that levels of cortisol and pro-inflammatory chemicals continued to drop for six months to a year afterward.
Mindfulness practice also helps you notice your thoughts and feelings without judging them. "Mindfulness means accepting whatever you may notice around you and not trying to analyze it," Duke University's Brantley says.
After she left New York for North Carolina, Miller discovered the Duke Mindfulness program and found it to be invaluable. She attended group sessions and learned how to practice the meditations. The time she spent paying attention to her breathing or visualizing something peaceful improved her concentration at work and allowed her to reduce her dose of anti-anxiety medication.
The basics of the meditation (listening to your breath or paying specific attention to various parts of your body) are simple and can be learned from books—such as Full Catastrophe Living (Delta, 1990) and Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (Hyperion, 2005), both by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center. "The important thing is to make mindful practice a part of your life so you'll be prepared when a stressful situation arises," Brantley says.
Relax Your Body
By combining physical relaxation with controlled breathing, yoga can help you deal with both physical and mental stress. A recent study by the Boston University School of Medicine found that any variety of yoga practice may increase brain levels of the neurotransmitter gammaaminobutyric acid (GABA), which is associated with relaxation and lowered anxiety. Magnetic resonance imaging showed a 27 percent increase of GABA in the brains of experienced practitioners following an hour- long yoga session, versus no increase in a group that simply read for an hour. The 2007 study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, looked at the effects of yoga on eight practitioners, versus 11 people in the control group.
"People with anxiety often have chronic physiological tension in the body, and contracting and releasing muscles can help that," says Bo Forbes, founder of the Boston-area Center for Integrative Yoga Therapeutics. "At the same time, yoga requires mindfulness, which can break the pattern of ruminative thinking." Restorative yoga, in which the body is partially supported by props such as pillows or blankets, is especially helpful in calming the brain and the body, says Forbes.
The practice worked for Ellen Cooper (a pseudonym), a 34-year-old money management executive near Boston whose severe anxiety was triggered by the combination of a stressful job, a divorce, and the loss of a family member, all within one year. She was taking an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication when she began doing restorative yoga. "From the very first session, yoga allowed me to find the time and space to work through the sadness and find inner peace," she says. After a year of practicing almost every day, either in the studio or at home, she now does restorative yoga regularly, once or twice a week, and has gone off her medication.