Try These Mantras for Anxiety When You're Feeling Overwhelmed
During a global pandemic — or, really, any time — anxious thoughts can seem to play on a racing loop in your head: Did I just stand too close to my neighbor? Is my mask too loose? Is my dog coughing? But what if you could ease your anxiety simply by replacing your thoughts with other thoughts?
Mantras — repeated phrases meant to steady your mind — allow you to steer your thoughts toward a single, focused point, says Raghu Markus, executive director of the Love Serve Remember Foundation, a nonprofit that continues the teachings of Ram Dass (an American spiritual teacher, psychologist, and author of Be Here Now.). If your mind tends to hover in the past or future (a common thread in anxious thoughts and stress-fueled overthinking), using mantras for anxiety can help bring you into the present.
Mantras can also help create visualizations, says Ethan Nichturn, author of The Road Home: The Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path. As you take in the texture of the repeated sounds, you can envision a new environment for the mind beyond stress. The mantra can heighten certain senses, such as sight and sound, creating rich inner experiences, says Nichturn. Body-based meditation (such as body scans) can sometimes make you feel a little too tuned into your body and its accompanying anxieties; mantras, conversely, provide a point of focus that guides you out of your body, away from yourself.
If this all seems a little too woo woo for you, consider the science. Research shows chanting mantras can quiet the area of the brain responsible for self-evaluation and mind wandering. Likewise, a 2016 study found that chanting "om" for 10 minutes increased participants' focus, improved their mood, and made them feel more connected. Mantras have also proven successful in clinical settings. A 2018 study found that mantra therapy was effective in reducing PTSD symptoms in veterans, and that 59 percent of participants no longer met the criteria for PTSD after just two months of using the technique.
While the word "mantra" refers specifically to sacred utterances (usually in Sanskrit, an ancient Indic language), other chants and positive affirmations can have power. Gurus and therapists say you can get similar healing effects from chanting positive affirmations. (Think: Paul McCartney's sage advice to "Let it be" or the late guru Ram Dass' plea to "Be here now.") For people with anxiety disorders, focusing on these positive sentiments can reduce the intensity of emotions, decreasing the physiological symptoms of anxiety, says Amy Morin, psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do.
How, exactly, do you use a mantra for anxiety? Start by choosing a designated time to commit to the practice each day, says Marlynn Wei, M.D., author of the Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga. Assume a comfortable seated position, then close or lower your eyes a few feet in front of you. Start with five to 10 minutes and work your way up to 20 or more, says Jack Kornfield, author of No Time Like the Present — and don't be afraid to get a little experimental with your practice, finding what works for you. Some people recite the mantras aloud while others recite the phrases quietly in their heads. Likewise, some use mala beads, a string of beads used to count mantras, while others simply count on their fingers, he says. In addition to using these mantras for anxiety as a daily grounding practice, you can also turn to them in moments of high stress.
No matter how you use mantras, what's most crucial is finding the right one for you. Here are some popular Sanskrit mantras for anxiety (with English translations) recommended by gurus for calming the mind and easing stress. Plus, learn how you can find your own positive affirmation if that feels more accessible for you.
Considered the root of all mantras, om has no direct translation, and many layers of meaning; it symbolizes the first moment of creation, containing everything that would come after. There was nothing, and then there was a vibration, which was om, explains Aaron Fast, a yoga teacher in Brooklyn, New York. As om is often said to be the primordial vibration from which all life sprung, a 2009 report explains that its rhythm resounds in every vital system (your heartbeat, breathing, brainwaves). Thus, chanting 'om' can help you connect more deeply and steady your mind. Try chanting the mantra internally, letting it flow with each breath. Or chant it aloud, perceiving your own voice, while cutting off all thinking. Pronounce it with three parts: Lead with an 'ah' sound, gently slide into 'oh,' and end with an 'mmm' hum. (Here's more on the history and meaning of Om.)
Soham (I Am That)
Soham (soe-hum) means "I am that" or "I am the universe." Chanting the mantra helps you shift from your limited sense of self to something broader, reminding you that you're part of something larger, says Lily Cushman, author of A Little Bit of Mantras: An Introduction to Sacred Sounds. As you develop a more expanded awareness, your daily worries and anxieties will start to diminish. Listen closely, and you can hear the sounds of Soham in the breath, she says. The sound of "so" is connected to inhalation and "ham" is linked to exhalation. When chanting Soham, sync the rhythm of your breath to the mantra, inhaling to the sound of "so" and releasing with "ham." You can also recite the mantra silently, while still matching the internal chant with your breath. (Related: What Is Breathwork, and What Are the Benefits?)
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu (May All Beings Be Happy and Free)
By chanting Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu (low-kah sah-moss-tah soo-kee-no buh-vahn-too) — meaning "may all beings be happy and free" — you invoke peace in all things. It is often chanted at the end of a practice as a way to turn the tender feelings from the practice outward. You can also look to this mantra for anxiety when you're feeling overwhelmed by the suffering in the world and don't know what to do about it, says Cushman. Over time, this mantra helps you cultivate a deeper connection to others, fueling action. It can help you live from a place of connection and care, rather than, say, anxiety and fear, she says. Instead of dwelling on your anxious thoughts, you can channel that energy toward your commitment to helping others. (Related: Buying My Own Tibetan Singing Bowl Changed My Meditation Practice)
Om Mani Padme Hum (Praise to the Jewel of the Lotus)
Strangely, the lotus flower — the national flower of India — blooms in muddy waters. Chanting Om Mani Padme Hum (ohm mah-nee pahd-may hum), which means "Praise to the Jewel in the Lotus," serves as a reminder of the good that can bloom out of your anxiety or difficult circumstances (the mud). Thus, chanting this mantra can be especially helpful when dealing with challenging emotions, says Spring Washam, author of A Fierce Heart: Finding Strength, Courage and Wisdom in Any Moment. You can call out for compassion (jewel) and it will arrive to help you meet difficult moments, she says. Washam says the mantra is most powerful chanted during seated, concentrated meditation, but can also be chanted during a walking meditation. And indeed, during these strange, pandemic times, as you embark on your nervous, face-masked walks around town, suspicious of every passerby-er, you may want to give this mantra for anxiety a chant.
Find Your Own Positive Affirmation
Not feeling these? As mentioned, though non-Sanskrit phrases and chants aren't traditionally considered mantras, you can absolutely find a positive affirmation that works for you as a mantra for anxiety. Look to popular song lyrics or slogans to find a phrase that is meaningful to you. If you want a slogan fit precisely for these pandemic times, you may simply find comfort in the old adage, "This too shall pass." Kornfield suggests chanting "Only love," while Morin says repeating the phrases "I am okay," "I am enough," or "I've been through tough times before. I can get through this, too," can all help drown out negative thoughts. Or consider these other mantra ideas from meditation pros or motivational sayings from trainers when you're looking for inspiration.