“Mindfulness Gone Wrong “

“I can’t meditate. Meditation just isn’t for me. Mindfulness doesn’t work!” These are just some of the sentiments shared by those struggling to attain the tranquility and healing that yogis and mediators alike seem to experience.  Despite the increasing popularity of holistic practices, such as mindfulness, yoga, and the plethora of research suggesting that mindfulness meditation can help ease psychological ailments such as; anxiety, depression, and OCD, there are many people who find “being in the present moment” to be near impossible.  The busy mind never seems to be calm or quiet enough to bask in the bliss of relaxation, peace, and clarity that mindfulness is often known to elicit. You would think, training one’s attention to focus on present moment experiences without judgment, and to recognize thoughts as simply activity of the mind, would be the antidote for anxious brains, right?

On the contrary, turning one’s attention inward to the incessant mental chatter and discomfort of maintaining silence and stillness can trigger more anxiety and stress for the person meditating. Our thoughts tend to wander into states of worry, rumination, fantasy, and planning for the future.  People have even reported an amplification of negative emotions, memories, fears, or physical discomforts when intentionally shifting their attention to the present moment for prolonged periods of time.  Which makes sense; considering, the present moment for someone with anxiety is going to be one based in fear and catastrophe prevention.  When actively working with these distressing experiences by sitting in silence or being guided to shift attention back to “this moment”, it can easily become aversive or overwhelming.  This continued negative experience leads people to become disillusioned by the practice itself; consequently, becoming a dismissal of a very important healthy habit of the mind.
But, the issue is not with mindfulness itself. Nor, is it with the individual practicing incorrectly; but, with the techniques and strategies used to cultivate a ‘mindful’ state of being.  For the anxious brain, it will be highly challenging, even aversive, to engage in traditional mindfulness. Because this training requires sitting still, with eyes closed and directing one’s attention to uncomfortable or distressing internal experiences with thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
Mindfulness has showed remarkable changes in brain functioning that allow skilled individuals to better respond, versus react to their experience.  Besides becoming “unstuck” from never ending ruminations and worries, mindfulness deactivates the parts of the brain responsible for excessive fear, anger, and worry. While strengthening other regions of the brain dictated to impulse control, rational thinking, and conscious action. The good news is, specific techniques can help worried or busy minds gain a sense of calm, focus, and control without grinning and bearing negative experiences that often dominate the present moment. These tips below can be utilized by individuals who struggle with more traditional mindfulness teachings and exercises, and who would benefit from strengthening this brain skill.
Tips for Worried & Busy Minds:

  1.    Practice active forms of mindfulness using your 5 senses (i.e., smell, sight, sounds, touch, and taste) as anchors to the present moment.
  2. Try taking a 10-minute mindful walk where you focus on one sensory experience at a time.  Ask yourself “what do I see around me? What sounds are coming in and out of my awareness at this moment?”
  3. Make it fun by picking two of your favorite colors and trying to find objects with those colors in your environment.  Or use tactile objects (e.g., furry objects, putty, ice) to heighten touch/feel sensations. Great for children as well!
  4. During your next snack or meal, use all of your senses to explore who it looks, smells, sounds, and feels? Then, who it tastes in your mouth? Try chewing one bite of food 25 times with your eyes closed to heighten your sense of taste and focus on the process of eating.
  5. Get lost in the moment doing something you enjoy that requires a good amount of your attention like playing a sport, creating art, or exercising.
  6. Try sensing something pleasurable around you like smelling a fragrant flower, or listening to birds chirping and let yourself linger in the experience for as long as you need.  Savoring each moment.
  7.    Put yourself first for a change.  Take a warm bath, get a massage, or allow yourself to sing-a-long to your favorite tune. Stay attuned to your sensory experience.  Allow yourself to enjoy it fully. Again, savoring the moment.
  8.    Practice “allowing” things to be, as they are, in the present moment.  This means coming to terms with the ebb and flow of our experience (e.g., joy, discomfort, pain, fear, peace, etc.), the reality of impermanence, and acknowledging that things will not always be as we want.
  9.    Take a group mindfulness workshop or course to learn and practice techniques with the support of others.  Sometimes hearing others share questions and related struggles with the practice can confirm personal challenges you may encounter. This will also increase your skill set by learning from others experiences.
  10.    Work with your breath, actively.  Instead of just focusing your attention on breathing, pair each inhale/exhale with a calming phrase to help anchor your mind and free it from worries.  Try repeating to yourself, “Breathing in. I know I am breathing in. Breathing out. I know that I am breathing out.” You can also try repeating one grounding word on the inhale (i.e., “calm”) and another word on the exhale (i.e., “ease”).

By adding these tips to your current mindfulness practice will help you master the ability to live in the present moment and break free from the mind traps of worry and rumination.
By Christine Izquierdo, Psy.D.