Skip to cookie consent Skip to main content

Meditation for Anxiety and Stress

Contributor Sara Lazar, PhD
8 minute read
Woman meditating with hand on chest.

Stress and anxiety are normal parts of modern life. But you can manage them with one of the oldest wellness practices in the world: meditation.

“Meditation involves getting out of your everyday thinking mode and deliberately practicing being in the present moment,” says Sara Lazar, PhD, a Mass General Brigham associate research scientist in the Department of Psychiatry. She leads the Lazar Lab for Meditation Research at Massachusetts General Hospital. “If you do this in an open, receptive, nonjudgmental way, you can break the way you normally think about and interact with the world.”

Although there are many types of meditation, Dr. Lazar specifically recommends mindfulness meditation for anxiety and stress. She offers insights into what mindfulness means and several helpful tips to achieve it.

Mindfulness versus meditation

The concepts of mindfulness and meditation are related — but they aren’t the same. Meditation is a practice that can help you achieve mindfulness, which is a quality or characteristic. Dr. Lazar compares meditation to exercise, a practice that can help you achieve mental fitness.

To meditate, train your attention and awareness on something such as breathing sensations or quiet sounds in the distance to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state. Over time, meditation can help you achieve mindfulness. Mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, describes mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.”

“When mindfulness is present, you are aware that you are aware, and there is a sense of seeing the moment from a different and larger perspective,” Dr. Lazar explains. “Mindfulness meditation is practicing paying attention to the present moment in an open, nonjudgmental way. So when you get out into real life, you can do it more easily and it happens much more spontaneously.”

Benefits of meditation

The health benefits of meditation range from physiological to psychological. Research by Dr. Lazar and others has found that when you meditate, your body experiences very rapid and dramatic physiologic changes. This includes reductions in:

  • Breathing rate

  • Cortisol levels

  • Heart rate

  • Inflammation

Studies show that over time, meditation changes brain structure and the brain’s reaction to emotional, aversive, or negative stimuli.

Why is meditation important?

Many people who meditate feel calmer all day long — less tense, reactive, or angry. They find themselves pausing before reacting to everyday stressors.

“In that pause, you have a more adaptive, more mature, more useful response than what you might habitually say or do,” Dr. Lazar says. “Not as hot-headed or reactive as you may have been in the past.”

Meditation is like any other skill. It can be simple to do if you’re just sitting there. But as you go about normal daily activities, most of us forget to be mindful, especially when driving in traffic or dealing with difficult people.

Sara Lazar, PhD
Associate Research Scientist
Mass General Brigham

How to meditate to reduce stress and anxiety

Dr. Lazar emphasizes that there are many styles of meditation and that there’s no one right way to meditate. She addresses some common questions.

When should I meditate?

Experiment to find whatever schedule works for you. Some people prefer one or two longer sessions per day. Others find it best to meditate in 2- or 3-minute sessions frequently throughout the day.

How should I sit when I meditate?

“You don’t have to sit there cross-legged with your hands in a funny position if that’s not comfortable for you,” Dr. Lazar says.

You can sit or lie down in any position that’s comfortable. Some people prefer walking or slow, deliberate pacing.

Should I meditate with my eyes open or closed?

This is also different for everyone, Dr. Lazar says. Closing your eyes may help you filter out distractions, but it can make some people sleepy or encourage daydreaming. Many people find success by keeping their eyes three-quarters closed.

How do I start meditating?

“When you’re driving down the highway at 60 miles an hour, you can’t suddenly turn onto a small, quiet side street. You need an off-ramp,” Dr. Lazar says.

Similarly, you need a transition from life’s hectic pace to a state of meditation. Try walking or stretching to expend some energy and gradually slow down before meditating. Use a mantra or a word that you repeat with every breath to bring yourself into focus. Perhaps count your breaths. Or use recordings of guided meditations.

Should I play music when I meditate?

Dr. Lazar recommends a relatively quiet place with as few distractions as possible. You may find that you focus better with soft instrumental music with no melody. Some people like to listen to nature sounds such as running water or birds chirping.

How long should I meditate?

Some people meditate 40 to 60 minutes at a time. But others find that shorter sessions are more helpful or more practical.

“If all you have is 10 minutes, then that’s all you have, and that’s better than nothing,” notes Dr. Lazar. “And some studies demonstrate that 10 minutes does provide some benefit.”

Do I have to meditate every day?

Daily meditation is ideal, but you don’t have to practice every day to reap benefits.

“It’s sort of like physical exercise. If you miss a day or two, just get back on the wagon. You can always restart,” Dr. Lazar says.

Other tips for meditation

There are plenty of books and online tools available to refine meditation.

Smartphone apps

Dr. Lazar recommends smartphone apps that contain curated resources for meditation. Teachers guide you through meditation practices of various types and lengths. Some even allow you to ask questions.

Dr. Lazar strongly recommends working with a teacher to ensure you are practicing correctly and to address questions that may arise. There are many live yoga and meditation classes available, in person and online.

Mindfulness throughout the day

Dr. Lazar also recommends you try incorporating “mini moments of mindfulness” throughout your day. “There are so many 10-, 20-, 30-second moments throughout your day when you can drop in and be mindful. It’s really about being open and aware of what’s happening in the present moment.”

Dr. Lazar shares some suggestions.

“As you’re washing the dishes, just be aware of how the water feels on your hands. Instead of thinking about your day or what you will do tomorrow — can you just pay attention to washing the dishes? When you’re in the shower, can you just be aware of the sound and the feel of the water? As you’re walking from your front door to your car, be mindful of the sun on your face and the feel of your feet on the ground,” she says.

Practicing meditation for stress and anxiety relief

Meditation takes practice. It will never be perfect. Even the minds of the most experienced meditators wander, Dr. Lazar says. If this happens to you, simply follow these steps:

  1. Notice your mind wandering.

  2. Give yourself credit for being self-aware in that moment.

  3. Refocus.

With practice, your mind will wander less often and for shorter periods.

“Meditation is like any other skill. It can be simple to do if you’re just sitting there. But as you go about normal daily activities, most of us forget to be mindful, especially when driving in traffic or dealing with difficult people,” she says. “It’s like dribbling a soccer ball down a field. If you’re alone, no problem, but if there are other soccer players on the field, it’s a lot tougher. However, if you practice your soccer skills, you can maybe hold your own.”


Associate Research Scientist