We're living in a confusing and anxious time. Chances are, even if you're typically even-keeled, you're looking for ways to de-stress from the daily fear and uncertainty surrounding both the coronavirus pandemic and the future of our democracy. One way to do that is through meditation.
For starters, people who practice mindfulness are better able to regulate their emotions. Because of this, studies show that mindfulness can help reduce anxiety, prevent depressive episodes, control stress, and increase self-compassion and even body satisfaction.
There's another important benefit of mindfulness during a time when many of us are both working from home and having trouble concentrating: Mindfulness helps boost your brain, improving focus and information retention and reducing the power of distractions (for instance, from social media and constant news alerts).
Mindfulness also encourages healthy behaviors, like exercising, eating healthy, and cutting back on nicotine and alcohol — all of which can actually help boost your immunity, too. Meditation can also help lower blood pressure (probably thanks to stress control) and improve cardiovascular health (mostly from helping people quit smoking).
But, as everyone who has ever tried to sit on the floor, quiet their anxiety, and clear their mind knows, meditation is really effing hard to get into — especially if you're already in an anxious state.
Chances are, you’re overthinking it. For starters, you're not actually supposed to clear your mind, but instead just allow thoughts to come through judgment-free. But there’s another potential roadblock: Some people actually feel more anxious when they're supposed to be relaxing.
Here’s how to know if you have relaxation-induced anxiety (yep, it’s a real thing) — plus how to finally get into meditation, even if you’re anxious.
WTF Is Relaxation-Induced Anxiety?
A lot of people for whom meditation will eventually help initially feel uncomfortable and antsy in their early sessions. Often, that’s because people are under the impression their swirling thoughts should stop when they meditate. When they don’t, the spiral of questions and thinking continues, which can exacerbate the anxiety over "not doing it right,” explains Jasmin Terrany, a Miami- and New York-based psychotherapist and mindfulness and meditation coach.
"Whatever thoughts and emotions arise within, that’s what is inside you at that time. The challenge people experience is that they are actually dealing with those things directly during mindful practices instead of distracting or self-medicating not to feel it, which can make it all feel more overwhelming and challenging,” says Terrany.
But a recent study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found people who are more sensitive to shifts in negative emotions — that is, those who have a hard time calming after a stressful meeting, or coming down from being scared — feel more anxious when they're lead through relaxation exercises like mindfulness and meditation.
It’s called relaxation-induced anxiety and anywhere from 17 to 53 percent of adults experience it, according to an older study out of the University of Cincinnati.
It’s similar to what happens when you’re wired or experiencing insomnia and try to force yourself to fall asleep — the harder you try and relax, the more frazzled you get, says mindfulness expert Beverly Conyers, author of Find Your Light: Practicing Mindfulness to Recover from Anything.
If you’ve read every beginner’s guide to meditation and still can’t seem to get the hang of it, you may simply be neurologically predisposed to prefer more adrenaline-fueled relaxation activities (more on that later) than tranquil ones, says Manhattan-based psychologist and elite performance coach Ben Michaelis, Ph.D.
It likely has something to do with dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in reward, motivation, memory, and attention, he explains. "Although we are all driven by it, some people, often high performers, may have more of this neurotransmitter or may be more sensitive to its effects,” Michaelis says. "If you are one of these people, then trying to ’chill’ will only make you more anxious because you are fighting your natural brain chemistry.”
How to Be Mindful When You’re Anxious AF
"Ironically, many of the people who are most in need of some calming relief are the ones whose anxiety spikes when they try to relax,” Conyers says. For our purposes, it doesn’t much matter whether you have official relaxation-induced anxiety or just standard trouble sitting with the uncomfortable feelings when you sit down to meditate — either way, slowly wading into mindfulness and meditation, rather than jumping in deep, can help you build a practice over time. Here’s how:
Do a full-body scan. The goal of mindfulness is to control and focus your attention to the present moment. Practice micro-moments to help build to bigger ones: While sitting or standing, do a body scan from your head to your feet, Conyers suggests. Release tension by unclenching your jaw, lowering your shoulders, and relaxing your hands. Gently straighten your spine. Soften your gaze as you look forward. Breathe evenly and feel the stress leave your body.
Practice smiling. "Not only does smiling make you feel good, but it actually changes your mental and physical biology, increasing happiness, relieving stress, boosting your immune system, and lowering your blood pressure,” says Kathleen Hall, Atlanta-based stress expert and founder of The Mindful Living Network. Plus, smiling is contagious so you’re also changing the mood of those around you, which inherently will benefit you. This may be hard as your interactions with your coffee barista, office security guard, or coworkers may be limited, but try to smile at every person you do encounter, whether it's your roommate or delivery person. It’ll help to reduce anxiety and allow you to move into mindfulness and meditation more readily.
Sweat it out. If you have trouble with tranquility, try a repetitive, high-intensity activity like sprinting, running up and down the stairs, or doing cycling sprints, Michaelis suggests. Experimental evidence suggests that people feed off different types of neurotransmitters, and some (like extroverts) prefer those, like dopamine, that are released during high-intensity activities, he explains. That means a HIIT class may have a calming effect on you like meditation does for your friends. (And if you can't head to the gym right now, try an at-home workout instead.)
Breathe when you’re stressed. Controlling your breath is one of the easiest — and most effective — forms of mindfulness. "When your breath becomes shallow, like when you’re stressed, you’re sending less oxygen to the brain and to your body,” Hall explains. After a hectic meeting, sit in your chair and focus on inhaling and exhaling, each over a count of four. It’ll help calm your nervous system and bring your attention inward. This is a great tool to have in your back pocket whenever you start to feel overly amped, as research shows repetitive, ritual behavior reduces anxiety, Hall adds.
Leverage your commute. If you work in a field that requires you to head to work right now, there are some ways you can use that time to put you in a calmer headspace. "Every time your car is stopped at a traffic light, in a traffic jam, or waiting for an accident to clear, this is a great opportunity for a renewal,” Hall says. Practice your breath-work in these moments, inhaling from your abdomen for four counts, then exhale for four counts. This will not only help condition your mind to take advantage of the slow moments more, but also send you into work in a calmer state.
5 Ways to Make Meditation Easier
Once mindfulness becomes more integrated into your daily life, you’ll be in a much better place mentally to lean into other relaxation techniques instead of fighting them. It then has a snowball effect — if you intentionally practice mindfulness on the reg, you’ll naturally become more mindful in all areas of your life which will help you control your anxiety more, all our experts agree. If you want to institute a regular meditation practice, here are a few ways to make getting started easier.
Start small — and be patient. "Our instinct is to avoid difficult thoughts and emotions, which inevitably arise in moments of quiet,” says Conyers. "When we accept — rather than fight — what is unpleasant, it begins to lose its potency.” That means you have to stick with it. Give yourself a do-able goal, like practicing mindfulness for five minutes every day on your walk to get coffee, or meditating for just one minute three times a week. Increase the time weekly and feel the unease fade.
Get out of bed. "When you’re in bed, your body is programmed to sleep,” says Terrany. Sitting in a chair or on the floor can help signal to your brain that you’re resting, not sleeping. If the bed is the only place you can be alone and have quiet, don’t meditate straight after waking — at least get up and wash your face before getting back in, and stay on top of the covers to minimize that sleep association, she adds.
Meditate at the same place every day. If you’re trying to set up a regular practice, carve out a corner of your home to be used exclusively for mindfulness or meditation, Hall suggests. Similar to how we associate the bed with sleeping, your brain will begin to associate this corner with relaxation and intention, which will in turn make it easier to achieve both. Nest in this space, adding colors you love, crystals, incense, flower vases. If you live in a small space, you can create a small tray alter or box with these items, store it under your bed, and pull it out to do your practice, Hall suggests.
Try a walking meditation. "Seated meditation isn’t for everyone,” says Conyers. Take a walk, listen to music, dance — any of these can be a meditative experience that calms the mind as long as you’re bringing your attention to whatever you’re doing and aiming to be fully present.
Opt for a guided session. "Probably 25 percent of the people I teach experience anxiety after the first session of a silent meditation, but in a guided imagery meditation, it may be only 2 to 5 percent,” Hall says. Silent meditations allow more emotions and trauma to arise, while having someone’s voice constantly guiding you toward safety and positivity. In-person guided meditation or an app with guiding, nature sounds, or mantras (like Insight Timer) are a great option.
The Bottom Line
The only way to be bad at mindfulness is not to do it. If trying to sit with your anxiety is unbearable or sends you into panic attacks, definitely talk to your mental health care provider about a more personalized treatment plan. But for most people (including those with anxiety), the practice of sitting and being uncomfortable is exactly the point, Terrany says. And the more you force yourself to sit or walk or sweat with the thoughts, even for small intervals, the easier it’ll get to do so — both on the mat and in day-to-day life, Terrany says.