We often hear about how amazing meditation is: that it can reduce anxiety and depression, calm your mind, and bring you more into the present moment.
But what if you try meditation and it makes you more anxious?
If so, I completely relate.
Although, when I first discovered meditation, it actually did a lot of good for me. I started using a meditation app and meditating 3-5 minutes a day, then 10 minutes a day.
And at that time, it did help reduce my anxiety and pause more in the moment.
But, after the newness of meditation wore off, trying to sit down and meditate for 5+ minutes a day started to have the opposite effect. And I have since to come to terms with the fact that traditional meditation makes me anxious. And at this time in my life, traditional meditation is not for me.
So, if you’re here because you understand the feeling, let’s talk about why this might happen and what can we do about it.
Why Meditation Can Make Us Anxious
Meditations will guide you to focus on your body’s sensations without judgement. They’ll also guide you to let emotions come up and to simply observe them, give them your full attention—that difficult emotions are part of the process. You’re becoming more aware, and that’s normal.
And this can be great advice! … But what if you’re frequently having panic attacks during a meditation? Or the act of noticing these sensations is too much to handle? And it makes you way more anxious?
For some, anxiety can make them feel like they’re boxed in. Your world becomes small, overwhelming, and very aware of the fact that things don’t feel right. And bringing those feelings to the surface can be really hard to handle.
This is what happened to me.
How Meditation Makes Me Anxious: A Quick Story
I first discovered meditation makes me anxious after some new anxiety symptoms came into my life: heart palpitations.
I had just started trying medication for my adult ADHD. And just before that, I had had a very high blood pressure reading at my doctor’s office. (It turned out the reading was due to white coat hypertension and I’m okay, but it had me extremely nervous about my heart.)
And one of my anxiety “triggers”is anything to do with my health. If something seems off at all, I can spiral into a deep sense of doom and worry about what might happen to me.
So, long story short, I developed a deep hyperfocus on my heart rate and pulse. Especially when I would try to pause, sit still, and meditate—and even more so if I closed my eyes.
All I could hear and focus on was my heart, and the hyper-awareness would bring a panic attack very close to the surface.
I also can’t simply focus on my breath like many meditation practices guide you to do. For some reason, I can’t just let my breath rest how it normally would. I become hyper aware of it and have to guide it in and out without feeling like I’m basically losing my mind.
I like the way physician-in-training Jessica Johnson put it in this Elephant Journal article:
“Focusing on the breath can create sensations of having difficulty breathing, focusing on swallowing can create the sensation of difficulty swallowing … Normally, these transiently worrisome thoughts can be redirected, but when we start to become intensely aware of every sensory input, the anxious mind may magnify them to the point of causing an acute exacerbation of the anxiety or even a panic attack.
The idea behind mindfulness is, of course, to observe these sensations from a non-judgmental neutral space without acting on them … but sometimes we’re not able to get to that point. Particularly anxious people (myself included) may only get to the noticing part of the practice, which then sends them into a tailspin of anxious thinking—one anxious thought leading to the next.”
So, I had to stop doing my regular meditation practice, because it was actually causing a lot of distress and not helping me like it used to.
If you can relate to this in any way, you’re not alone! And here are some of my thoughts on what we can do.
What to Do If Meditation Makes You Anxious
So you want to benefit from meditation and be more mindful, but anxiety gets in your way. Let’s look at some ways we can approach this situation and make it work for us.
Focus on Your Intention
With meditation—and any mindfulness practice—I think the key is to focus on our intentions for practicing meditation.
For me, I want to reduce anxious, negative thoughts that pop up throughout my day. I also want to be more present so I can get more out of each moment.
But I’ve also had to realize this won’t happen overnight, and that mindfulness is a practice personal to me.
Think about why you want to be more mindful, why you want to be a meditator. Probably to feel better, right? In that case, trying to force yourself into awareness—while also trying to approach that awareness in a non-judgement way—probably won’t cut it.
You might even start to feel bad about yourself if your anxiety doesn’t *poof* go away (or actually gets worse) during a long meditation session. And that’s not what we want. 🙂
Instead, consider how you can approach mindfulness from a new perspective with a more flexible and growth-focused intention. (More on that below.)
Replace Judgement with Self-Compassion
You’re not defective or “doing something wrong” if classic meditation doesn’t work for you. Focus on self-compassion and kindness towards yourself. No practice is one-size-fits-all, and no one practice will necessarily always fit your lifestyle and needs.
Consult a Professional
If you have intrusive or self-critical thoughts or emotions that are too much every time you try to sit down and be mindful, you might benefit from working with a mental health professional. They can help you work through these thoughts so they’re easier to deal with.
(I’m actually looking into this for myself in the near future too.)
Have an Open Mindset About Meditation
I’m very prone to black-and-white thinking. And I would guess many of us are. So if something doesn’t work for me, my gut instinct is to throw it out all together.
But life is like that, and neither is meditation. It’s not necessarily good or bad for you. There are just different ways to approach it.
Don’t be afraid to try different methods—as well as recognize when one isn’t for you.
You might also be open to starting small. I know that if I do eventually come back to meditating like I was before, I’ll start very small. Maybe a minute at a time, then three minutes, etc. Easing into things can make them less overwhelming and less black-or-white.
And who knows? Life is always changing, situations are always changing. You might come back to meditation later on and find it more tolerable. Maybe you’ll be more prepared to handle what comes up and sit with it—and little more each time.
Traditional meditation isn’t best for me right now, but I remind myself that it’s okay to be open to changes—and to also modify with alternatives.
Possible Alternatives to Meditation for Anxious Minds
Here are some helpful mindfulness practices I now do instead of meditation.
1. Pausing to Notice Your Surroundings
As I mentioned above, sitting still and breathing with my eyes closed really makes my anxiety worse at this time. I start to feel boxed in. So instead, I’ll sit with my eyes open, in a comfortable position, and just notice things around me.
And I’ll engage each of my senses:
- What I can feel, such as the smoothness of my chair or texture of my phone case
- Things I can see, such as a painting on the wall or trees blowing in the wind
- What I can smell, such as flowers or my morning coffee brewing
- Anything I can hear, such as background conversation or music, a fan in the room, or traffic going outside
- And any tastes I notice, whether I’m eating or drinking something or the lingering taste of something I had earlier
I’ll just take a moment to focus on each of these. Sometimes I’ll find five things for each sense, but if I’m particularly anxious, I won’t stress about the specifics. Just go through each one and take a moment to notice things. This helps open up my surroundings, instead of boxing me in, while grounding me.
2. Focusing on Something with Your Eyes Open
If focusing on your breath or other bodily sensations during meditation make you anxious (like they do me), try shifting the focus
Keep your eyes open and make your focus object something front of you, such as a candle. Or maybe a mantra you can repeat.
3. Doing 10 Inhales and Exhales
You could call this a mini-meditation, or just simply breathing. Wherever you are, whether you’re sitting at work or standing in line at the grocery store, take a deep inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
An inhale and exhale counts as one breath cycle. Repeat for 10 breath cycles. This adds up to around a minute of breathing, which can make a big difference.
4. Trying Restorative Yoga
This is one my psychiatrist recommended to me when I expressed these concerns about how meditation makes me anxious. When I used to do yoga regularly, it was mostly power yoga or fast flows.
But restorative yoga is more about stillness and slowness. Holding poses for long periods of time and breathing into them.
When we’re anxious, being still is hard. But it’s also a sign that we probably need more stillness in our lives. Meditation helps us practice this, so if meditation isn’t working, restorative yoga may be another alternative.
5. Slowing Down During a Task
Washing dishes, walking the dogs, typing on your computer. Can you turn your full attention to the task, slowing down to notice each movement and sensation?
6. Listening to Music
When I’m anxious, it’s hard to focus on anything. But playing music I enjoy does help. Maybe try this song?
I know that for me, simply slowing down during a task can help reduce my anxiety and bring me more into the present in a positive way.
Maybe regular meditation will become a thing in my (and your) life in the near future. I’m certainly open to it. But I know that for now, tailoring mindfulness to my needs is the best choice for reducing anxious thoughts and feeling my best. And maybe that’s the case for you too.