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

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

Has mindfulness mediation 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 and elsewhere. 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!


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

  1. Sue Halloran February 25, 2016 at 5:32 pm #

    THANK HEAVENS! I’ve been getting stressed just ‘cos I haven’t even started to attempt mindfulness meditation. I think I’ll stick with nana naps and exercise.

    • marypat February 29, 2016 at 5:11 am #

      I think we have succumbed to a major “SHOULD” about HOW TO meditate and like any belief system, dogma, etc. it puts many of us in a constraint, a box! any activity that brings us peace, calm, clarity AND MOST IMPORTANTLY an ability to BE PRESENT, to be IN THE MOMENT truly is MEDITATION! WE DO NOT have to be sitting crossed leg with thumb and punky touching saying OMMMM or some other chant!! If it works for you great!

      Being PRESENT, IN THE MOMENT is what helps and makes a difference!

      Meditation can look like standing under a warm shower, walking , doing the dishes,,, be creative …Often while I walk I repeat with each step an affirmation “I am____ Lets not make ourselves wrong and stress ourselves out more because we “ar not doing it right!!” MPC

      What works FOR YOU IS WHAT IS RIGHT!!!

    • Carol Newnham February 29, 2016 at 1:25 pm #

      Hi Sarah
      I too am a meditation drop-out. However, I try to practice mindfulness several or even many times a day. When I was walking every morning (before sore knees wrecked that) I would try to be mindful of one sensory in-put each morning. The most successful of these was sound. At the beginning of each walk I would listen out for different bird calls, and their direction, intensity, differences, timing etc. As the walk went on, the sounds I heard changed – birds faded out as the light came up, and traffic noises near and far would take over. By the end of the walk my mind had wandered off, but at least is wasn’t buzzing with what I needed to do that day (this is how I wake up). Nowadays I’m doing water aerobics several times a week, and try to get to the pool early to practice some mindfulness in the water. Sound at the pool is often intrusive but touch is just fantastic. I will even do some mindfulness while waiting in the car for the lights to turn green. What I like is being able to do mindfulness anywhere, anytime and I can dip in and out. Not sure if there are any benefits, but it’s much better than the “stress” of meditation.



      • Sarah McKay March 2, 2016 at 9:34 am #

        I’m very similar to you. Mindfulness works wonders for me too, especially when walking!

    • Sarah McKay March 2, 2016 at 9:39 am #

      Why am I not surprised Sue!

  2. Ross February 25, 2016 at 5:50 pm #

    Good article. Some personal experiences from someone who has meditated on and off for over twenty years:

    I find that there are periods (of many months) when I enjoy meditation – and others, as long, when it is just the wrong thing. I’m going through one of those periods at the moment and there is no apparent reason for it. I’m perfectly happy in life and enjoying myself – I just don’t want to adopt what feels like a bit of an insular focus. I do find that if I attempt to meditate under these circumstances that it does have a negative consequence for my overall mood.

    I also find I have two sorts of ‘monkey mind’: One that is productive, fueling new insights and ideas, which I actively use and wouldn’t want to suppress, and the other definitely a case of rumination and over thinking.

    The best cure for rumination, for me, is a good hard cycle, row, run – whatever it takes to get me physically working hard – out in the open, natural environment. This stops the rumination in its tracks and has a lasting effect after the exercise is over. In my experience meditation won’t do it. I strongly suspect that ‘rumination’, as a sign of ill-being, is more to do with the absence of physical activity than absence of meditation – coupled perhaps with individual disposition. There doesn’t appear to me to be any evolutionary logic to meditation in its own right – so my guess is that what it deals with is a maladaptive consequence of relatively sedentary lifestyles – and the absence of the kind of engagement with our environments that we experience in natural surroundings.

    I do find that meditation does help me develop very intense focus and an ability to ignore environmental ‘irritants’ – but beyond that I’m not entirely sure of what I get out of it. That’s not to say there aren’t any benefits – it’s just that I have no control sample to compare with.



    • Sarah McKay March 2, 2016 at 9:39 am #

      Thanks Ross … I agree with the exercise. I find a hard pump class at the gym or other outdoor sports like skiing have the same impact.

  3. Karen February 26, 2016 at 8:30 am #

    For the majority of my life walking and reading have been my main form of relaxation. Only more recently has an occasional nap come into my life. I love your article as it brings forth the benefits of these activities.

  4. Sarah February 28, 2016 at 8:12 pm #

    When I tried to meditate I could only sit still for about 5 seconds before squirming and feeling very uncomfortable. It felt all wrong to me. What worked instead was beginning with a moving meditation, specifically Yuan Gong. Moving my body in a rhythmic and relaxing way, unifiying my mind and body together, to help my mind become still. The consequence is that I can sit and meditate easily now and have a greater ability to calm my thoughts, and change them. Worked for me.

    • Sarah McKay March 2, 2016 at 9:38 am #

      I find I have a similar reaction in pump classes….the rhythm and the movement. It helps my mind still too.

  5. Martin February 28, 2016 at 9:04 pm #

    As a novice I have found some benefits but in unexpected ways.It seems to have given me a modicum of control over my thoughts and increased my will power.I feel I can keep doing ‘the hard miles’and reduced my procrastination.I still look for benefits which is not the aim,but I quickly decided not to stick to a rigid formulae of exercises but combine it with sitting physical exercises( neck and shoulder).Being in the’now’ when doing day to day activities can be enjoyable and has certainly proved to me,to quote Shakespeare,”There is nothing either good or bad,but thinking makes it so.” to be spot on.Therefore,being flexible in what you do,certainly not trying to become the next Dalai Lama,and cherry pick or create your own routines.It then links up nicely with positive psychology which is more goal oriented.

    • Sarah McKay March 2, 2016 at 9:38 am #

      Shakespeare was a wise man!

    • Maryland April 16, 2016 at 6:59 pm #

      Thanks for inicudortng a little rationality into this debate.

  6. joan taylor February 29, 2016 at 1:01 am #

    Hi Sarah, Tis is important for meditation teachers to read. One thing I have become aware of: we are not all wired the same. So, I can see where you are coming from. You are a high achiever, a thinker, and a creative person. Your life is probably as stable as we can get given the world we live in.
    I believe that when my life is running smoothly I have no need to meditate, my thoughts are flowing freely and this in itself is a meditation….BUT than, I find myself like a mouse in a maze, heading here and there, without meaning, very scattered, unproductive, I go out to do one job, than see another and my body wants to do that, when another pops out as more important, Now those are the times when just stopping, coming inside, picking up my book I am presently reading, or turn on some quiet pleasant music, sitting down and “starting over”. mindfully saying to myself:”go out side and do ONE thing, when that is done do the next.” and giving reassurance that I DO NOT HAVE TO IT ALL today! This is a method of meditation which prevents our brains from running off the track. Than I am An “A” blood type, and have cortisol being secreted in my body all the time, and a little stress runs me off the track, a brain wreck.
    The most effective meditation is after a 90 min yoga class, is savasana, where we allow all the body parts to relax, to release all the tension, to “settle” in to place of peace. This is where we find we are pushing the tension around never catching it, so to just let the floor support us, to let go trust the surface of the Earth press up to us and holding us, with no need to worry or be tense.
    Than we get up and are refreshed to head back into what life has to offer in the next moment, and can smile.

  7. Connie February 29, 2016 at 4:06 am #

    It had become a stress for me because it had turned into something on my to-do list. Therefore, since I was Never meditating all of my life, it became a guilty weight of a brick on my psychological sholder. So, I am very happy to learn that you, an overachiever, put your experiences here & that I was lucky to have it come to my phone app!! Thsnk you, universe!

    • Sarah McKay March 2, 2016 at 9:37 am #

      Your experiences are VERY similar to my own. I didn’t want to feel guilty or stressed over meditating. All the claims that it’ll transform EVERYTHING where what kept me going. I’m glad you read my blog 🙂

  8. Rob February 29, 2016 at 6:00 am #

    I have used mindful meditation (and other means) as a way of trying to manage a chronic health condition I’ve had for some 55 years. I use this approach as a way of trying to find a way to control the course of the illness. While I believe that stress is a paramount factor, nothing I’ve tried in the alternative realm has shown any indication of reversing the course, albeit I sleep better and feel better – give the old placebo effect credit for that.

    I keep thinking, ‘Where is the role of traditional medicine in helping me to manage my condition?’ No hope they would have an answer that would give me a feeling of healing. It’s been decades of taking prescription medications on a daily basis and other practices which seem to lead nowhere and leave me frustrated.

  9. Cassandra Perry February 29, 2016 at 11:38 am #

    I teach workshops in meditation, and one of the myths I expose is that meditation makes you peaceful. Another is that you have to sit in discomfort, legs tied in knots. Another is that you need a special ambience. Yet another is that you have to sit for long periods.
    What meditation will do is help you know yourself. It will bring up your urge to flee from discomfort, mental , spiritual and physical. It will debunk your desire for a quick-fix. It will shatter any expectations you might have of neon lights and being enlightened in the short term. It is a process of observing yourself increasingly without judgment, without faltering, with steadfast acceptance and affection.
    True mindfulness meditation is both specialised and difficult.
    What about simply committing to sitting for five minutes when you awake. Just sitting on the side of your bed, feet flat on the floor, and watching how your mind squirms, your nose itches, the to-do list intrudes. It’s very like training a small child. Gentleness, repetition and persistence. Keep it all as simple as possible.
    Every time the mind whisks your attention away, simply bring it back to the breath as it moves in and out. Without impatience.
    Of the large groups I have taught, only a few get it and persevere. Most are really relaxed and at peace at the end, but of those, most, I suspect, get home and can’t make it part of their routine. One man who got it taught his depressed, suicidal friend how to do it simply. That friend is no longer suicidal.
    Most of all, it is necessary to have a purpose to meditate. If you simply want to be in fashion, you assuredly will not succeed. If you are serious about reducing your stress levels, meditation works. It all depends on how much you want it, and why.

    • Sarah McKay March 2, 2016 at 9:35 am #

      I agree that you have to know WHY you’re doing it. And because I find other activities work just as well, perhaps I didn’t have the required dedication.

  10. jacqui February 29, 2016 at 1:58 pm #

    I have meditated consistently for 41 years and it is as natural to do it as it is to clean my teeth.
    I liken the practise of it to learning a language or an instrument.
    It is not meant to be easy and a lot perseverance is required in order to become proficient.
    We are a quick fix society and lose patience if success doesn’t happen quickly.
    We also as a society crave pleasure and avoid pain. Meditation teaches you to be equanimous with
    whatever you are faced with in life whether it be pleasure or pain as neither are permanent.

  11. Carole March 2, 2016 at 6:50 am #

    Really that’s all that needs to be said.
    I’ve meditated and found it immensely helpful before going to bed when I worked at a mental health treatment center. It cleared my mind and settled my body. I’ve known folks who have had mental breakdowns from meditation – leading me to think that is why the ancient ones always had a teacher to guide you.
    I didn’t meditate when I immersed myself in the piano as an adult – music was my meditation and is known as the fastest spiritual pathway. I couldn’t play or practice well if my mind was focused on something else.
    My active mind needed a system for meditation and Amma’s IAM technique was the perfect fit. It’s not a good fit for others. Many very spiritual folks never meditate – they live life as a meditation: Love and Serve. Just like food, there is only one diet and that is your’s. It’s not the same as anyone else on the planet and it is not stagnant. Listen to your body moment by moment, discern the inner knowing to dance your dance, sing your song, walk your walk. I meditate 2x/week and don’t worry about how my mind or body feels about it because it makes my soul sing.

    • Sarah McKay March 2, 2016 at 9:34 am #

      N=1 is very true. But I’m sharing my experience while at the same time acknowledging that it works for many many others.

  12. Michelle March 2, 2016 at 7:36 am #

    A belief is a thought you keep thinking.

    If you believe meditation doesn’t work for you, and that’s your belief, then you’ll keep thinking about it (and writing about it), and your thoughts and writings will continue to reconfirm your belief, and that is how it will be for you.

    Feeling “pleasantly surprised” that others feel the same is also reconfirming/supporting your belief that meditation doesn’t work for you.

    That’s all okay. If you feel something else works that has the same benefits, all good.

    • Sarah McKay March 2, 2016 at 9:33 am #

      I agree with this sentiment. Although I did give it a fair old whirl!

  13. Gemma March 14, 2016 at 9:41 am #

    I feel that, like most things in life, meditation and mindfulness work for some and not for others. I started practicing both a few years back in an attempt to do something about my serious insomnia. Additionally, I have been very sick for 7 years and hoped it may help generally with managing difficult and painful days. Although I am still very, very much a beginner, and hopeless when it comes to ‘stilling my mind’ for more than about 1 minute at a time, I can see the benefits of persisting. Something as simple as sitting quietly without needing to have a constant occupation seems a positive challenge and a valuable lesson. And while I have been sick, doctors have prescribed so many different medications for sleep and pain management and many of those have left me worse rather than better. But we don’t immediately discount such medications because they didn’t work for one, so why discount mindfulness and meditation?

  14. Ian Boyle March 21, 2016 at 10:33 am #

    Thanks for this post Sarah. I have been having similar struggles every day when I meditate but it is worth persisting through. Jack Cornfield has a post that touches on this topic. I thought you might enjoy it)

    Kind regards Ian.

    • Sarah McKay April 5, 2016 at 3:01 pm #

      Thanks for the link – I’ll take a look.

  15. Paul Morgan May 16, 2016 at 12:28 pm #

    Hi Sarah,
    Great post!!
    I like you have tried meditation on and off for a number of years to no avail. That is, until six months ago. I came across a new start-up with a tool designed to assist with meditation. I’m thrilled to report that the past six months have resulted in a new found skill to calm my active mind. I urge you to research the software available is developing in many different ways.
    As I use mindfulness in my practise I’m seeing great progress in my patients. Check it out.

    • Sarah McKay May 23, 2016 at 11:34 am #

      Hi Paul – thanks for the tip. I’ll take a look at Muse. x


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