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When Meditation Backfires

April 19, 2017

Meditation has gotten about as trendy as cupcake shops in the 2000s, and for good reason.  Meditation has been shown to improve concentration, treat chronic pain, increase relaxation, and reduce cognitive problems as we age.  Coach Pete Carroll even introduced the Seattle Seahawks to meditation the same year they won the Superbowl.  So it's obvious that meditation works. Except when it doesn't.  

 

Meditation is one of those tricky self-help treatments.  Some people can download a relaxation app or read a meditation book and never look back.  But others (particularly those with anxiety) might close their eyes, start to breathe deeply, only to find themselves sinking deeper and deeper into their own fears and anxieties.  They feel more anxious than when they started.  And that realization makes them even more anxious.  After all, if meditation—the ultimate relaxation tool—fails to relax them, what hope do they have?  So... dare I say it?  Sometimes meditation makes anxiety worse.  

 

That's where a proper teacher, therapist, or guide is invaluable.  For example, most meditation instruction begins with a brief body scan.  However, body scans, in which you are asked to pay close attention to the sensations of your body, can make you even more hyper-vigilant.  This can spell disaster for someone with panic attacks or health anxiety.  However, a wise teacher might suggest a technique that gets a hyper-vigilant person OUT of his or her body, such as a guided meditation or imaginative visualization.  Further, if sitting still with your thoughts is a recipe for more anxiety, yoga might be more appropriate.  (After all, yoga has been called "meditation in motion.")  Often the focused breath and movement of yoga gives the anxious brain just enough to chew on, instead of on ruminations, negativity, and problems.  

 

So if you are an anxious person who has meditated his or her way to even more anxiety, don't despair.  You're not alone.  Meditation-induced anxiety is a real thing, but it can be remedied by the right experienced teacher and with the right techniques tailored to your specific anxiety.  Meditation doesn't have to be a trend.  With some work, it can be one of the greatest tools in your anxiety arsenal.    

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