Researchers say just 10 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation can help reduce distracting thoughts for people with anxiety. They published their findings in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.
“Mind wandering accounts for nearly half of any person’s daily stream of consciousness,” psychologist Mengran Xu of the University of Waterloo said in a statement.
That’s a lot of distraction, and it’s not just idle time. Wandering minds make it hard to work and learn. They also mistakes. Some of those, like mailing an envelope with no letter inside, are relatively harmless. Others, like drifting into another lane of traffic, can be dangerous and even deadly.
Conditions like anxiety and depression can often make it even harder to concentrate. Some previous studies had found that mindfulness meditation can improve focus, but others were less conclusive. And nobody had yet investigated if the same was true for people with anxiety.
Xu and his colleagues recruited 82 college students, all of whom were prone to anxiety. They divided the students into two groups. Half of the participants listened to a 10-minute audio lesson on mindful breathing and meditation. The other half, the control group, listened to the first eight paragraphs of The Hobbit.
(This is not the first mindfulness experiment to use Tolkien. Both The Hobbit and the specific meditation lesson used here have been part of numerous other studies on mindfulness—in part because they seem to work, and in part because standardized procedures are a good step toward valid results.)
Next, all the students were asked to take a brief test on the computer. Every so often throughout the test, a dialog box opened with a “thought probe,” asking the participant what they were thinking, and how motivated they were to keep thinking about it. The students’ test results and their answers to the thought probes suggested that even a mini meditation has a lot to offer.
"Our results indicate that mindfulness training may have protective effects on mind wandering for anxious individuals," Xu said. "We also found that meditation practice appears to help anxious people to shift their attention from their own internal worries to the present-moment external world, which enables better focus on a task at hand."
More research is needed to confirm these findings. This experiment was small, and relied on participants’ own reports of their thoughts and feelings. Also, all the participants were college students, and their results might not necessarily translate to the general population.
Also: It’s true that mindfulness can be hugely helpful, but we should note that it is not a cure—for anxiety nor any other illness. If anxiety is making it hard for you to focus or function, it’s time to talk to your doctor. You can meditate in the waiting room.