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Does meditation stress you out? Here’s what I do instead.

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This post was originally published on this site

Has mindfulness meditation become the latest bandwagon to jump on?

This thought has been swilling round in my (monkey) mind for a while now.

Over the past few years I’ve written about mindfulness and meditation numerous times, both on this blog. I’ve read the research on the ‘neuroscience of meditation‘, and how such practices can ‘change your brain’, improve your health and wellbeing, and train your attention. I’m aware of the differences between ‘mindfulness’ and ‘meditation’. I’ve attended mindfulness training sessions, downloaded the HeadSpace app, and quizzed meditation teachers about their practice.

Despite being all over the theory and health claims, I’ve recently started to come out to people as a meditation drop-out, and meditation skeptic.

It works for plenty of people. But it just doesn’t work for me.

I find meditating really stressful.

Much to my surprise, many people I’ve admitted this to have sheepishly agreed. Even if they don’t find it stressful, they report finding the entire experience underwhelming, incredibly challenging, or a waste of time. (Note, I haven’t yet spoken to anyone who posts Instagram selfies of themselves meditating. They may disagree).

We’re probably all a little sheepish because the current western narrative around meditation seems to promise so much: inner wisdom, personal transformation, improved workplace cultures, happier school children, calmer parenting, reduced stress, laser sharp focus and ability to pay attention, better mental health, entrepreneurial success, wealth, and even world peace.

No matter your problem, there is a mindfulness app for that!

To be fair, I probably I fell prey to the current culture and narrative around McMindfulness mindfulness and meditation. But I don’t think I went into this looking for a quick fix. I was seduced by the claims and research backing up the claims, that meditation is a great antidote to stress.

Others agree. Meditation isn’t a panacea.

In the process of writing thinking about this post, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that there are a few others popping their hands up admitting that it doesn’t work for them either, and that there might even be a dark side to the current craze.

Dawn Foster wrote a piece recently in the Guardian ‘Is mindfulness making us ill?’ describing her highly negative meditation experience:

I feel a rising panic and worry that I might pass out, my mind racing. Then we’re told to open our eyes and the feeling dissipates. I look around. No one else appears to have felt they were facing imminent death. What just happened?

For days afterwards, I feel on edge. I have a permanent tension headache and I jump at the slightest unexpected noise. The fact that something seemingly benign, positive and hugely popular had such a profound effect has taken me by surprise.

Even a year later, recalling the sensations and feelings I experienced in that room summons a resurgent wave of panic and tightness in my chest. Out of curiosity, I try the Headspace app, but the breathing exercises leave me with pins and needles in my face and a burgeoning terror. “Let your thoughts move wherever they please,” the app urges. I just want it to stop. And, as I discovered, I’m not the only person who doesn’t find mindfulness comforting.

Foster is not alone. Authors Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm published a book last year called ‘The Buddha Pill‘ challenging (rightly so, in my personal experience) the claim meditation is a panacea. They present research on the often serious and negative outcomes of meditation — psychosis, breakdowns, and violent behaviours — that are seldom spoken of by meditation advocates and practitioners.

Listening into a podcast by yogi and meditation practitioner Jonathan Fields, I heard great analogy from him of how mindfulness can harm when it is presented as an isolated practice.

Meditation cultivates awareness. It stills the water so you can see what’s underneath lying in the sand. But if you don’t like what you see, it doesn’t make it all better.

And, Wikholm has summarised the final chapter in a great piece for The Guardian, ‘Seven common myths about meditation’. She writes,

Nevertheless, there is emerging scientific evidence from case studies, surveys of meditators’ experience and historical studies to show that meditation can be associated with stress, negative effects and mental health problems. For example, one study found that mindfulness meditation led to increased cortisol, a biological marker of stress, despite the fact that participants subjectively reported feeling less stressed.

It’s definitely not just me!

This is why meditation stresses me out.

It is REALLY hard to do. And I KNOW that its not a quick easy fix. But overachiever I am, I like taking on a new challenge that has a reasonable chance of success, or at least small wins early on in the process. Pleasure, not repeated failure, is what I find rewarding, motivating, and keeps me coming back for more.

Yes, I’m aware that its natural for my mind to wander, and that I should compassionately and mindfully bring my attention back to my breath etc etc … but after a year or two of trying (including guided mediations and an MBSR course) I’ve failed to manage to sit and ‘just be’ for longer than half a minute.

I’ve never found it peaceful and calming, instead the battle with myself to chill has the opposite effect. At times I’ve been left emotionally drained and raw. I didn’t expect to face such a battle with my mind, and to feel such a deep sense of failure with every session.

So, I’ve stopped trying to meditate. I still try to mindfully empty the dishwasher, peg the clothes out on the line, and focus on the world around me when walking. But sitting and watching my breath. Nope. I’ve chosen to give up feeling stressed while trying to engage in a practice that is meant to reduce stress.

Instead of meditation, I find my time and place of calm.

As I explain in my Bottom-Up, Outside-In, Top-Down model of brain health, I believe there are plenty of ways to access your nervous system to counteract the stress response. Top-Down techniques can be some of the trickiest to master.

In the absence of a meditation practice, I use a combination of of Bottom-Up, Outside-In AND Top-Down tools to reduce my stress response, modulate my emotions, and cultivate self awareness.

I walk. In nature. Every day (if I can). I’ve found it’s hard to walk ‘wrong’. When I walk I don’t have the constant narrative running through my head as I do when meditating. Am I walking the right way? Am I thinking too much about walking? Oh no, now I’m feeling sleepy! Will falling asleep ruin my practice? I’m such a novice. Perhaps I should go home and an app to talk me through each step. No need to compassionately observe my mind. I just walk with my dog, and think about whatever I want.

I read. My favourite part of the day is getting into bed with a good book. I consider loosing myself for an hour in a novel the ultimate mindful attentive practice.

I get curious about my emotions. I recently gave up my 5pm red wine habit for FebFast. The first two weeks I struggled with cravings come late afternoon (that is another blog post). Instead of fighting them, I tried to explore them as a good scientist should. What were the physical sensations involved? What was triggered the craving? Could I distract myself? Did the cravings come in waves that eventually subsided. Curiosity killed the cravings!

I nap. If I feel like it, I indulge my circadian rhythms and take a mid-afternoon nap when the urge strikes. I’m very good at it. It feels sooo good. And quite frankly, it’s hard to do it ‘wrong’. Plus we have plenty of evidence it smooths emotions, sparks creativity and improves your memory.

Walk. Read. Get curious. Nap. No courses, apps, or gurus required!

Sarah McKay

Sarah is a neuroscientist and writer, and the founder of Your Brain Health. As a PhD trained neuroscientist (not a doctor) Sarah has found her passion writing and talking about science and medicine. Her goal is to make neuroscience research simple and relevant to your everyday life.