Buddhism A–Z
Anxiety & Buddhism

Note: This article does not focus specifically on clinical anxiety disorders as a mental health condition. If you feel you may have an anxiety disorder, you may want to seek professional medical assistance. “Individuals with anxiety disorders experience excessive anxiety, fear or worry, causing them to either avoid situations that might precipitate the anxiety or develop compulsive rituals that lessen the anxiety. While everyone feels anxious in response to specific events, individuals with an anxiety disorder have excessive and unrealistic feelings that interfere with their lives in their relationships, school and work performance, social activities and recreation,” according to the Mood Disorders Society of Canada.

Within Buddhism, anxiety is a commonly used term for dukkha, the term that appears within the four noble truths that is frequently translated as suffering but also can be translated as dissatisfaction, unease, unsatisfactoriness, disappointment, among others. Sometimes termed as “basic anxiety”—to indicate its presence even in times of relative happiness—Buddhist usage of the term points to a quality of being ill-at-ease that is distinguishable from the simple experience of pain.

Shooting Ourselves with a Second Arrow

Basic anxiety, or dukkha, is a secondary kind of pain that we bring on top of the pain that is an inevitable part of life. This understanding is expressed in the Sallatha Sutta, in the parable of the second arrow. According to the story, a person is hit by an arrow and experiences physical pain, but then anxiety emerges in the form of the person’s mind overtaken by thoughts that lead to suffering. These thoughts are as if we are shot with a second arrow. The Buddha teaches to be aware of the second arrow.

When we experience anxiety, rather than fueling it with further anxiety, Buddhism asks us to pay attention to it rather than resist it further since, as a well-known formulation goes, pain × resistance = suffering. As Buddhist teacher Judy Lief explains, “Anxiety is definitely a part of life, like sickness, aging, and death, but we take a bad situation and make it worse by how we respond.”

Mindfulness Practice and Anxiety

Mindfulness is a core practice in Buddhism and a powerful tool for working with anxiety. Mindfulness involves paying non-judgmental attention to the present moment. When we are mindful, we observe our anxious thoughts and physical sensations non-judgmentally, without reacting to them. This can help break the cycle of anxiety and reduce its intensity. The most common form of mindfulness practice is paying attention to the breath, noticing thoughts, and returning our attention to the breath. As a side effect, it calms the central nervous system by undercutting the rapid response to anxious thoughts.

Buddhism and Psychotherapeutic Approaches to Anxiety

There are many psychotherapists and psychiatrists who are also Buddhist and bring Buddhism into their therapeutic practice. For example, Dr. Pilar Jennings says that Buddhism and psychoanalysis take the same approach to calming the anxious mind: looking with friendly curiosity at your anxiety and what causes it. Echoing Dr. Jennings, well-known Buddhist psychotherapist Mark Epstein, author of Thoughts Without A Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective, has written, “Meditation did not relieve me of my anxiety so much as flesh it out. It took my anxious response to the world, about which I felt a lot of confusion and shame, and let me understand it more completely.”

Buddhist-inspired approaches have also taken root in mindfulness-based approaches to anxiety and other challenges with mood. In his book Unwinding Anxiety, for example, Dr. Jud Brewer, director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, offers mindfulness-based approaches to work with anxiety at all levels. In a similar way to the second arrow parable, Dr. Brewer draws a distinction between fear and anxiety: “…fear itself does not equal anxiety. Fear is an adaptive learning mechanism that helps us survive. Anxiety, on the other hand, is maladaptive; our thinking and planning brain spins out of control when it doesn’t have enough information.”

Zindel Segal—distinguished professor of psychology in mood disorders at the University of Toronto, who developed Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) with Mark Williams and John Teasdale—also promotes mindfulness as a means to work with depression and anxiety. Like others, he distinguishes between doing mode, which promotes anxiety, and being mode, which calms the anxious mind: “In doing mode, the relationship to feelings is primarily one of evaluating them as ‘good things’ to hang on to or ‘bad things’ to get rid of. Making feelings into goal-related objects in this way effectively crystallizes the view that they have an independent and enduring reality. “By contrast, in being mode, the relation to thoughts and feelings is much the same as that to sounds or other aspects of moment-by-moment experience. Thoughts and feelings are seen as simply passing events in the mind that arise, become objects of awareness, and then pass away. In the being mode, feelings do not so immediately trigger old habits of action in the mind or body directed at hanging on to pleasant feelings or getting rid of unpleasant feelings. There is a greater ability to tolerate uncomfortable emotional states.”

Related Reading

How Mindfulness Can Help Ease Anxiety

Buddhist teacher Judy Lief explains the Buddha’s deep analysis of the roots of anxiety and shows how mindfulness can help us ease the suffering of an anxious mind.

Get Curious About Your Anxiety

Buddhism and psychoanalysis take the same approach to calming the anxious mind, says Dr. Pilar Jennings—look with friendly curiosity at your anxiety and what causes it.

5 Meditations to Calm Anxiety

Five easy meditations you can do to find calm, care for yourself, and ease your anxiety in any situation.

Tuning In: A Buddhist Subtle Energy Practice for Anxiety

What does your body tell you when you're anxious? C. Pierce Salguero explains how Buddhist practice can help us tune in when strong emotions arise. 

How I Stopped My Panic Attacks

Stricken with anxiety as a child, Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche learned how to heal his panic with awareness. He teaches us three techniques that helped him.

Buddhism A–Z

Explore essential Buddhist terms, concepts, and traditions.