There’s an old Swedish adage that goes, “Worry gives the small things a big shadow.” We’ve all felt moments of inflated apprehension, but dwelling on things we can’t control also casts a particularly long shadow on our health: Chronic and/or excessive worry triggers the body’s sympathetic nervous system to release stress hormones, such as cortisol, which can lower immune function and increase weight gain, blood pressure, heart disease, risk for depression and, ultimately, lower life expectancy, among other things. A recent study, published in Behaviour Research and Therapy, however, suggests that specific mindfulness techniques can be particularly helpful to reduce repetitive worrying thoughts and lower overall anxiety.
In this study of 77 participants, researchers compared the effects of three different approaches to mindfulness: attention-based meditation (which focuses on the breath and internal and external stimuli), acceptance-based meditation (which observes and acknowledges thoughts without judgment) and progressive muscle relaxation (which systematically focuses on relaxing different muscles in the body).
The researchers found that acceptance-based meditation (often referred to as “acceptance and commitment therapy” by clinical psychologists) proved to be the most effective at reducing the frequency of negative thoughts. The premise of acceptance-based mindfulness meditation is based on a willingness to be fully present and recognize and experience odd or uncomfortable thoughts, physical sensations or feelings without attaching any particular value to them.
Remember: Worrying about things we can control often incites action (for example, preparing for a presentation, making an effort to be on time or enhancing a competitive edge), but worrying about things we can’t control is detrimental to our health. When you find yourself ruminating, try 10 minutes of acceptance-based mindfulness meditation. To get you started, try this guided practice.