I lay still and silent, enveloped in the dark cube of my parent’s walk-in closet. I breathed in. I breathed out. And again – in and then out.
In the calm, quiet space, my mind raced.
I had sought refuge in the closet in an effort to clear my mind, but now it seemed it was running faster and louder than ever.
This wasn’t relaxing at all! So much for my first attempt at meditation.
Whether you’re approaching meditation from a spiritual perspective or a purely secular approach, it may offer a number of mental and emotional benefits that make it an attractive option.
But despite its reputation for helping adherents achieve peace and clarity, meditation may cause some to become anxious instead.
The pressure to completely clear one’s mind and exist only in the present moment – combined with the frequent inability to actually do so – can turn this peaceful activity into a stressful one.
If meditation proves more stressful for you than it does relax, there are a few things you can do to ease your stress, relax, and enjoy the benefits of meditation.
Why is meditation stressful?
For some, meditation is pure zen.
For others, however, it causes more stress than it relieves.
You expected meditation to help you escape the overwhelm caused by the endless demands of life – work deadlines, soccer practices, sibling arguments, household chores, and needy spouses, to name just a few. Unfortunately, it sometimes seems as though being left in silence with only your own mind serves to amplify these demands, rather than push them out of your mind.
I know that when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I personally find my stress more manageable when I’m able to stay busy (read: distracted!).
Being alone with my thoughts in a dark, quiet room during the height of my stress might be enough to send me into a full-blown panic attack!
If you, too, have found meditation to increase your stress, you’re not alone: While meditation may help reduce stress for some who engage in the practice, others find it actually increases their body’s chemical response to stress, producing more of the hormone cortisol.
Indeed, meditation is not for everyone and can actually result in unintended consequences, such as increased stress and anxiety.
That said, however, it’s important to understand the true goal of meditation: to exist in the present moment.
The goal of meditation is not necessarily to reduce stress, although that may be a benefit you do experience as a result of practicing regular meditation.
Meditation does intend to help you experience peace and calm through helping you to exist in the moment, but it’s important to recognize that you will only be in that “moment” for a brief time; after you finish meditating, you still have to return to your real life – a real life that is often quite full and stressful.
Simply meditating will not remove these stressors from your life, but it can often have a positive impact on how you view them and confront them.
One reason meditation may be stressful for you is because of our tendency to strive toward perfection.
Just as you want to be the perfect spouse, the perfect parent, the perfect friend, and the perfect employee, you expect your efforts to meditate to go well, too.
After all, why would you bother meditating if you weren’t going to be able to do it right and do it well? Who has time to waste 10 silent minutes in frustration?
But when it comes to meditation, perfection is a dangerous goal.
Achieving the perfect state of focus – the ability to perfectly exist only in the moment – is difficult. It may require years of practice to achieve if it’s even possible for you at all.
But perceived perfection in meditation is not achieved only through experiencing success at the moment. It’s expected that not only will you feel perfectly relaxed and at the moment while meditating, but that you’ll also see noticeable results throughout the rest of your day, too.
Some expect results too soon – perhaps even immediately.
This often causes people to try to force the clearing of their mind, rather than simply relaxing and letting their mind wander or zone out on its own.
It’s a common belief that focusing during meditation is the actual goal, but really, meditation is designed to help you focus better after you meditate, rather than during the exercise.
Meditation is not an escape from reality. You’re not an ostrich burying his head in the sand, avoiding the challenges life has thrown your way.
You’re meditating because you seek to find focus, calm, and clarity in the midst of these challenges. Meditation is an opportunity to achieve clarity and focus, which helps you face your reality, rather than running from it.
If you’re turning to meditation because you expect it to help you lose yourself and avoid your problems, you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment, and perhaps even more stress.
Another common reason meditation may prove stressful for some is their choice of sitting position.
While the idea of meditation conjures images of someone sitting legs crossed, back straight, perfectly relaxed, this is not always an ideal or even achievable, position for everyone.
If you’re attempting to force yourself into a specific position to meditate, you may want to consider dropping your stereotypes and simply finding a position that allows you to achieve your own most relaxed state.
What works for you might not work for someone else – and that’s ok!
Others find that the few moments of calm and quiet afforded by their time of meditation actually cause them to drift off to sleep. As the mother of a teething infant, I can certainly relate to this tendency!
When the lights dim and the noise drops off, I’m often found drifting off to sleep at the first chance I get.
But falling asleep while trying to meditate can become frustrating – stressful, even.
If your current lifestyle has you exhausted and haggard, don’t dismay. Meditation, at least at certain times of the day, might not be the most appropriate practice for you right now.
Finally, some may find it difficult to meditate because of inconsistency in their life, schedule, and discipline. To be effective, meditation should be practiced regularly – daily – rather than haphazardly as one’s schedule allows.
Consistent meditation allows your mind to practice focusing and checking out. Throwing in a random meditation session every now and then is unlikely to achieve your desired results.
If your meditation experience has left you anxious, know that you’re not alone. If meditation really is something you’re committed to and you would like to continue, then there are a few steps you can take to reduce your anxiety and enjoy a more relaxing meditative experience.
How to reduce the stress of meditation
If you find meditation only adds to your anxiety, it’s important to identify the most likely cause of this increased anxiety if you hope to achieve a desirable outcome from your meditative efforts.
The following steps may help improve your meditation experience.
Stop trying to achieve something.
Meditation is not about accomplishment. It’s about being in the moment – the exact opposite of accomplishment.
In fact, meditation is more about striving for a particular state than it is actually achieving it.
But for those who are trained to always perform, achieve, and obtain, meditation can prove frustrating, as its ultimate goal is quite difficult to attain.
If you find yourself frustrated or anxious when meditating, you may be striving too hard. Try to relax and shift your focus away from the state which you are trying to achieve to instead the moment in which you are actually living.
This, too, is easier said than done. If you find it’s not possible for you yet, try to free yourself of the expectation to accomplish anything or reach any particular state while meditating.
Try an app.
If meditation causes you some anxiety, you may benefit from the use of a meditation app. Apps such as Mindful are designed to guide you through your daily meditation, offering you suggestions for what to focus on and teaching you how to actually practice meditation.
These apps will also offer insight into how to integrate mindfulness throughout your day, not just during the 10-15 minutes of intentional meditation.
As mentioned above, some people find it difficult to focus or relax while meditating because of their physical location or position.
If this seems to contribute to your meditation anxieties, you may want to get creative with your position and location.
For me, the most meditative state I have ever reached is when I’m staring into a crackling campfire nestled deep in New York’s Adirondack mountains.
Although I can’t achieve that state every day, I may find it helpful to turn on a YouTube video of a warm campfire glow, rather than just sitting in a dark room and trying not to let my mind wander. For me, the campfire gives me the permission I need to finally stop thinking.
Can you think of a similar experience that allows your mind to turn off?
Don’t expect much of a result.
In the same way that harboring expectations of what state you will achieve during meditation, having too high of expectations for where meditation will get you in your life can also prove anxiety-inducing.
While meditation may help you to relax or become more mindful in your daily life, it’s important to recognize that it won’t solve all your problems. It won’t remove the stressors in your life.
It can help you manage your stress or control the way you respond in particular situations, but it will not change your life’s circumstances.
If you expect meditation to produce too drastic of a result in your life, you’re likely to be disappointed.
If you don’t like it, don’t do it.
Meditation is not for everyone. While it may prove relaxing for some, it triggers anxiety in others.
If you find yourself anxious or stressed from meditating, stop. It’s not the only way to relax and clear your mind.
Try something else.
For me, meditation is not the panacea I’m seeking for all of life’s woes. I don’t feel the need to clear my mind; I need to organize my mind.
It’s not the presence of life’s demands that stresses me out – it’s the feeling that I need to address all of them at once that overwhelms me.
For me, an activity that allows me to organize my thoughts, rather than eliminate them, is the most impactful.
In my life, daily exercise has proven much more effective than meditation.
I also need to get plenty of rest. If I’m sleep-deprived, it won’t do me any good to clear my mind through 10 minutes of meditation each day.
It’s important to remember that although meditation may prove effective at reducing stress for some, it is not the only way to reduce – or manage – stress in your life. The strategies discussed above may help to reduce the anxiety associated with meditation.
Benefits of meditation
Although meditation can cause anxiety for some, it does provide a number of benefits. If you find meditation stresses you out, should you push through? Are the benefits really worth it?
While that decision is entirely up to you, meditation may offer the following health benefits in your life should you choose to continue with the practice.
Meditation is often touted as a great way to reduce stress and improve focus. It may also support those experiencing sleep disruptions or addiction issues.
Although desirable, these outcomes are not achieved only through meditation – nor are they guaranteed because of it.
If you’ve given meditation an honest try and still find yourself feeling more anxious than relaxed as a result, then it’s probably time to try something else. The mental, spiritual, or physical benefits that may come through meditation can be experienced through a number of other activities or mindsets.