Meditation is a great tool to take control of your mental health. But for people who struggle with anxiety, there are a couple of extra obstacles that can make it harder at first. What are those obstacles and what can you do about them? We cover them here.
1. Increased Self-Awareness
One key part of mindfulness is the practice of self-awareness. Coincidentally, this is also a crucial skill for dealing with emotions. You first need to notice a feeling before you can handle it properly.
However, this increased self-awareness can backfire as well. As you become more aware of sensations in your body and the workings of your mind, you might also become more aware of your anxiety symptoms. Some people even begin to look out more for signs of anxiety during daily life.
2. Depersonalization experiences
One experience that many meditators make is something called 'depersonalization'. This means that they experience a change in their self-perception. Instead of seeing the world as they usually do, a feeling of detachment from their body and their thoughts can arise.
There's nothing dangerous or inherently uncomfortable about depersonalization but some people do interpret this temporary change in perception very negatively. (It often occurs after people experience danger or other traumatic experiences, so this makes sense). If that applies to you, be aware that meditation can sometimes trigger these experiences.
And if a depersonalization experience occurs that frightens you, positive and reassuring self-talk can help. Tell yourself that this will go away until your perception has gone back to 'normal' (it certainly will).
3. Beta brain waves
The neurons in your brain generate electricity to communicate with each other and this electrical activity forms certain patterns. These patterns are called brain waves and come in five different forms: alpha, beta, delta, gamma, and theta.
Beta waves come with concentration and critical thinking and planning but are also associated with anxiety. Meditation practices, on the other hand, are typically associated with other types of brain waves. Transcendental meditation (TM), for example, generates alpha waves in some brain areas and that's a sign for your brain going into relaxation mode.
Not surprisingly, meditation should typically reduce beta waves. However, when people start a meditation practice, they will often drift off into thinking and planning. That's completely normal and simply part of the process. And for people who experience anxiety on a regular basis this happens even more often (because they are generally prone to repetitive thinking). Instead of relaxing brain waves, the brain is then flooded with beta waves. You're going into high-alert mode.
Again, this happens normally for most beginner meditators. But anxious people are simply more prone to negative thought spirals. It's possible - even likely - you get lost in thought for extended periods. That's why it makes sense to start with short meditation sessions (5 minutes could be a good starting point) and only increase gradually. It takes weeks and months to build up the ability to catch your mind when it's drifting off and then bring it back.
4. Emotional upheavals
As beginner meditators slow down and watch the inner workings of their minds, repressed memories and trauma may trigger intense emotional experiences. They come to the surface as some meditation teachers would say. Panic attacks and similarly unpleasant episodes can be the result.
That's why it's important that you face traumatic memories in tiny steps and only with the help of a professional. It's hard to deal with such intense emotional experiences on your own. Mindfulness meditation is not a self-help panacea.
5. Relaxation as anxiety trigger
It might sound strange, but relaxation itself can be a trigger for anxiety. People who experience this are able to relax. But after a short while, it's exactly this relaxation that causes them anxiety. There's even a term for this: relaxation-induced anxiety.
If you've noticed this before, it's possible that meditation also triggers anxiety for you. Instead of calming down your nervous system, it heats up. In this case, yoga (= that's basically gymnastics plus meditation) or walking might be a better place to start than traditional sitting meditation.
Some final notes
With all these challenges, beginning to meditate with anxiety can seem daunting. That's why there are a few tips you should know along the way.
- Sometimes, it's important to push through. Mindfulness meditation doesn't have to be pleasant. It rather is an exercise in accepting whatever you experience. If you're struggling with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, though, professional help is the way to go.
- Be self-compassionate. One crucial ingredient to mindfulness is kindness towards yourself. When meditation is too difficult, let yourself off the hook. And treat yourself as you'd treat your best friend.
- Celebrate mini-successes. Set small goals and acknowledge your progress. You could, for example, reward yourself for meditating three days in a row.
- Most importantly, let go of trying to make the anxiety go away. See instead if you can make friends with your own mind and - in small steps - build up a meditation practice to get to know it a bit more.
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