People who suffer from anxiety are often plagued by repetitive thoughts, which can distract from the task at hand and affect mood and productivity. But a new study suggests that 10 minutes of daily meditation can help reduce episodes of mind wandering, especially for people who report high levels of emotional stress.
Previous research has found that meditation can help prevent “off-task thinking” in healthy individuals, but this study, published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, aimed to determine the benefits of mindfulness specifically as they relate to anxiety.
Researchers from the University of Waterloo in Canada asked 82 college students, all of whom met the clinical criteria for anxiety, to perform a monotonous computer task that measured their ability to stay focused. At random points throughout, the participants were asked to reveal their thoughts “just prior to this moment.”
Then they divided the participants into two groups: One listened to an excerpt from The Hobbit, and the other listened to a 10-minute meditation that instructed them to focus on breathing and “remain open-minded to their experience.” (You can listen to the same recording, called Mindfulness of Body and Breath, here.)
The groups then repeated the computer task. This time, 43 percent of thoughts in the meditation group were considered “mind wandering,” meaning they weren’t related to the task or to things going on around them, down slightly from 44 percent in the pre-test.
In the group that listened to the audio story, the percentage of mind-wandering thoughts actually increased—from 35 percent in the pre-test to 55 percent in the post-test.
The meditation group also reported a significant decrease in “future-oriented thoughts,” from 35 percent before the mindfulness exercise to 25 percent after. This could indicate a shift in thinking from internal worries (about tomorrow’s exam, for example) to things going on around them in the moment (say, a dirty computer monitor or a flickering light), the authors say. That’s important, because stressing about future events is a hallmark of anxiety.
And while meditation didn’t reduce all forms of off-task thinking in the study (like being distracted by external stimuli), it did appear to lessen performance disruptions associated with those thoughts. Both groups also experienced a decrease in negative emotions between the pre-test and the post-test.
“In short, meditation is beneficial in both improving mood and helping people stay focused in their thoughts and also behaviors,” says lead author and PhD student Mengran Xu. “The two do go together.”
Mind wandering accounts for almost half of humans’ daily stream of consciousness, Xu adds. It can cause us to make errors on everyday tasks, like mailing an envelope without its contents, but it’s also been associated with an increased risk of injury and death while driving, difficulties in school, and impaired performance in everyday life.