Is mindfulness meditation making you feel like a failure?

And more anxious too? Pounding heart, heavy breathing, churning stomach and sweating hands can be some signs and symptoms of anxiety, along with the need to escape. It is a horrible, distressing experience, often accompanied by embarrassment and shame.

Mindfulness has been the first pick from the toolbox of relaxation techniques for some time. It requires no special equipment or clothing; it is available anytime from easy to use and in the main free Apps and growing in popularity with employers and health care professionals, including the NHS.

Yet, I hear all too often in my treatment space I listen to people reporting they don’t find mindfulness comforting and instead recall the sensations and feelings I associate with the opposite of relaxation, clenched teeth, tight chest, and churning gut. Don’t get me wrong, I use a mindful approach in almost all aspects of my work, but I think it needs tailoring to individual needs to help more people.

Anxiety explained

Anxiety isn’t the same as stress, but it’s similar in some ways to our fight-or-flight response, the body’s physiological response to perceived physical or mental threats, aka the stress response. Anxiety usually manifests itself as an intense, excessive worry and fear.

A level of anxiety is normal; feeling uneasy, distressed, or a sense of dread before a significant event makes us human. Fortunately, whatever the cause, in most cases, it’s usually short-lived, and we can carry on with our day as usual.

Living with ongoing anxiety is an entirely different matter; the amount of worry and fear might be completely debilitating; some people experience intense emotions and feelings for prolonged periods. Affecting every aspect of their day-to-day life, leading to a diagnosable anxiety disorder. 

Did you know that anxiety is the most common mental health condition seen in our society? There are various types, including generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). Other conditions include panic disorder and phobia-related disorders, like social anxiety disorder or health anxiety. Each type has unique symptoms; for example, GAD often involves persistent worries regarding nonspecific events and situations.

When this happens, an anxious brain functions in a constant state of fear. Not knowing what to do, our brain releases a flood of hormones and chemicals to ready us for action, resulting in unwanted, unpleasant and uncomfortable emotions, feelings, thoughts and body reactions.

Did you know that anxiety? 

  • Makes thinking clearly and rationally very challenging.
  • Makes the brain hyperactive and overly vigilant to threats.
  • Can make the brain hold on to memories and emotions in an unhelpful negative way.

Here’s the science simplified 

Symptoms of anxiety disorders disrupt the brain’s emotional processing centre rather than the higher cognitive centres, explaining why mental clarity is challenging. The brain’s limbic system, the oldest part of the brain commonly referred to as our primitive brain, comprises the hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, and thalamus, all involved in emotional processing.

Research seems to indicate that people with an anxiety disorder may have heightened activity in these areas.  Anxiety can be severely debilitating, but effective treatments are available to help people cope, including medication, therapy and lifestyle changes; making time to support our mental health is as important as our physical wellbeing. 

Mindfulness 

In its classic form, mindfulness is the practice of stillness and focusing on the present moment, the here and now. Its popularity surged in the last year, understandably due to increasing reports of stress, anxiety and isolation due to the Covid-19 pandemic. There has been a plethora of online courses, videos, articles and books raving its virtues.

Mindfulness, breathwork, and body-scanning practices ask that the user tune in and notice what is happening in their bodies and minds. This process of noticing and tuning into feelings aims to increase self-awareness. It can also cause discomfort and heighten emotions, especially in the beginning, making people more aware of their anxious thoughts and growing anxiety.

Whether practised alone or with a digital or human guide, it seems to offer a solution space; it provides a moment of quiet from our carousel lives to explore our thoughts and feelings and notice what we notice without judgment. Yet, I hear all too often in my treatment space. People who report they don’t find mindfulness comforting and instead recall the sensations and feelings I associate with the opposite of relaxation, clenched teeth, tight chest, and churning gut. 

Rather than removing the stressor, whether that’s unfeasible workloads or poor leadership, some employers encourage their staff to use a cheap albeit temporary quick fix; mindfulness meditation. Without sounding cynical, it’s going to be more difficult to complain about your workload or too much work-related stress if your employer points out that they’ve offered you free access to a relaxation App.

Did you know that some organisations have discussed mandatory meditation as a means to increase productivity? Many people’s primary concern is over the one size fits all mindfulness offered via Apps and videos without supervision or adaptation to individual needs or consideration to existing health problems and undiagnosed mental health concerns. 

What do the experts say?

The co-authors of the Buddha Pill, psychologists Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm, raised concern about the lack of research into meditation and mindfulness’s adverse effects. Farias reports that media coverage inflates the moderately positive effects of mindfulness and either doesn’t report or underplays the downsides. 

Like any intervention, nothing works for everyone, and mindfulness can have adverse consequences for some people, even those with a short daily practice. It’s difficult to know because researchers haven’t recorded negative experiences. 

David Shapiro, a professor at the University of California, has also raised concerns about the lack of quality research on the impact of mindfulness, specifically the lack of controlled studies. What has been clarified is the risk of adverse consequences with mindfulness practice increases with some mental health problems?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is one; studies show any meditation practice, including mindfulness, may trigger re-experiencing of traumatic memories, which is highly distressing and can set people recovery back.

These folks should learn with highly experienced trainers and probably avoid using Apps or online recordings, at least in the beginning. The downside of this advice is increases costs and accessibility concerns, especially for those housebound or living during numerous pandemic lockdowns.

Florian Ruths is a consultant psychiatrist in adult mental health and clinical lead for mindfulness-based therapy at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. For more than a decade, he has been researching and teaching mindfulness to colleagues and treating patients with mindfulness-based interventions. 

He states that teaching yourself mindfulness through Apps or online guides is probably risk-free for people free of stress and without any clinical mental health issues or illness. So as stress is ever-present, does that mean virtual and remote mindfulness is risky for everyone?

Do you want to mindfulness another try?

If you want to give master mindfulness another try? Preparing can help; focus on grounding first; if lying down, bend your knees bent, or if standing, kick your shoes and socks off so you can feel your feet on the floor. Wriggle your toes or rock from toes to heels. If you are sitting and that’s not possible, try lightly stamping your feet, or clench and relaxing your fists?

There another lovely grounding technique you can do anywhere, bring your awareness to whatever’s in the space around you, count 

5 things you can see

4 things you can touch

3 things you can hear 

2 things you can smell

1 thing you can taste

Counting activates the brain’s left side, responsible for logic and rational thinking, which can offer rapid relief from an acute anxiety attack.

Ways forward

If mindfulness is a mental training practice that involves focusing our mind on our internal experiences (emotions, thoughts, and sensations) in the present moment, we could do that anywhere. Moving meditation is a great option; walking is the easiest to turn up your internal focus. Quietly noticing how each foot strikes the ground, how the breath enters and leaves the body can offer similar results to traditional mindfulness and increase fitness along the way.

Try contemplative low-impact exercise practices such Tai Chi, Qigong or Feldenkrais, or Hanna Somatics are forms of moving meditation, proven to reduce stress and anxiety, improve blood flow, and increase energy.

Breathwork which is part of a mindful practice, can bring awareness and relaxation if used with a body scan which involves noticing arts of the body and bodily sensations in a gradual sequence from feet to head. It can bring awareness to every single part of your body and release tension by noticing areas that feel relaxed and at ease, along with those that feel tense or uncomfortable.

We can encourage an inward internal focus by gazing at a fixed object; the flame, an open fire or candle, or a natural object like a pebble or tree. Instinctively we have looked at objects to unwind or relax since human existed.

Other options

Anxiety can be severely debilitating, but it doesn’t have to take control of you or your life. It can be associated with other conditions, so a visit to your doctor is always prudent to rule this out, but know that it is possible to live, flourish and thrive without constant worry or concern about potential dangers or fear of the world. 

Effective treatments are available to help people cope, including medication, often only needed for a short while. Talking therapy can help discover the hidden triggers, and guided relaxation techniques help reprogram the primitive brain to remove the unhelpful feelings associated with memories. Lifestyle changes are essential, too; making time to support our mental health is as crucial as the steps we take for granted to look after our physical health. 

Get some bodywork treatment; as an osteopath, obviously, I’m going to recommend its gentle therapeutic approaches, but any hands-on treatment of your choice can help calm the body and ease the physical symptoms associated with anxiety and stress. Osteopaths are skilled in releasing muscle tension to support the body to continue self-correction after a treatment session. Those of us with additional training can also teach an individualised way to manage anxiety calmly in our safe spaces. 

Final words

In all forms, mindfulness is best learnt when folks feel relaxed and safe, so it becomes a beneficial, easily accessed habit when the need arises.