Study Finds Meditation Improves Attention in Anxious Individuals

A new study has found engaging in a simple meditation exercise for 10 minutes a day can reduce symptoms in people with anxiety disorders.  

Anxiety disorders are marked by repetitive, anxious, often baseless thoughts and fears about the future.  Canadian researchers say one in four people will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

The worrying can become obsessive and prevent anxious individuals from focusing on work and other important activities.

But engaging in a simple daily meditation exercise for 10 minutes, according to researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario Canada, may help people keep their minds from wandering, improving their performance on tasks.

The participants in a study conducted by Mengran Xu and colleagues engaged in something called mindful meditation.  

Mindfulness is commonly defined as paying attention on purpose and staying in the present moment without judgment.

Xu is a clinical psychologist at Waterloo who led a study of people with symptoms of anxiety, published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.

“We know that anxious people in general, if you ask them to stay on task, it is hard for them.  Their minds tend to wander.  They tend to worry.  But those people who practice mindfulness didn’t.  They were able to stay on task.”

In the study, 82 people with anxiety were asked to perform a computer task that required concentration.  They were periodically interrupted to gauge the volunteers’ ability to stay focused.

Half the group was then assigned to listen to an audio book and the other half to engage in a mindful, meditative activity, paying attention to their breathing, for approximately 10 minutes.

Then they were reassessed using the computer task.

Xu said there was a noticeable difference in performance between anxious people who did the simple meditation and those who did not.

“The anxious people who listened to the audio book, they performed much worse over time while the anxious people who practiced mindfulness meditation, they were able to in a way improve and maintain their performance on the task,” said Xu.

By increasing awareness of the present moment, researchers found a reduction in the frequency of repetitive, off-task thinking in people with anxiety disorders.

Xu said that wandering thoughts account for nearly half of a person’s stream of consciousness.  

In people with anxiety disorder, the thoughts tend to occur over and over again, causing worry.

By learning to reign in repetitive thoughts with a simple, 10-minute mind exercise, the findings suggest those with an anxiety disorder may be able to improve their productivity and even safety, so their minds don’t wander while driving a car, for example.  


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