It was found to decrease future-oriented worrying and boost focus ability in the present.

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated May 01, 2020
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People who suffer from anxiety are often plagued by repetitive thoughts, which can distract from the tasks at hand and affect their mood and productivity. But one scientific study suggests that just 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 more generally that one benefit of meditation is that it helps prevent "off-task thinking" in healthy individuals. Another study, published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, aimed to determine the benefits of mindfulness specifically related to anxiety.

Researchers from the University of Waterloo 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.)

Both groups then repeated the computer task. This time, 43 percent of the meditation group's thoughts were considered "mind wandering," meaning their thoughts weren’t related to the task in front of them or to things going on around them, appearing to be slightly from the 44 percent of mind wandering thoughts recorded after the first test, but before the meditation session.

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 down 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. This is incredibly telling, as 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 worries about the future and racing internal 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," said the lead author and Mengran Xu, PhD. "The two do go together."

Xu also adds that mind wandering accounts for almost half of humans' daily stream of consciousness. It's completely natural and normal, and what can cause us to make small errors on everyday tasks, like mailing an envelope without its contents. However, it’s also been associated with higher-stakes issues like increased risk of driving accidents, difficulties in school, impaired performance in everyday life, anxiety and depression. This study's findings reveal some of the most promising benefits of mindfulness meditation for anxious people, those whose minds wander and worry most.