Emma M. Seppälä Ph.D. Emma M. Seppälä Ph.D.
Does meditation make you anxious or mad? Here’s a science-backed alternative.
Posted Apr 19, 2016
We keep seeing more studies demonstrating how mindfulness meditation can change the brain, make us feel better, and generally improve our lives. That’s great. But what if it doesn’t work for you? Maybe the practices that were supposed to take you to a calm place made you feel anxious or irritable.
Your skin crawls, you have ants in your pants, and you swing between anxiety attacks and rage. Not exactly Zen.
Maybe your reaction was to start focusing on your to-do list and worrying that instead of getting things done, you were just sitting there doing nothing. You ended up getting frustrated, quitting, and buying another latte instead.
Your meditator friends either look like they could smile through a sandstorm or are so neurotically self-aware that they drive you nuts with their “mindful” attitudes and “conscious” relating. Meanwhile, you’re so stressed you can’t sit and watch your thoughts. Or label them. Or “hold them with nonjudgmental awareness.”
The good news is that you don’t have to do mindfulness meditation. There are other ways to reach inner peace.
There has been so much attention on mindfulness and meditation that we’ve started to equate the two.
One reason scientists are so interested in mindfulness meditation is that it is a cognitive exercise. Scientists like cognitive exercises.
Here’s what I mean: you have to observe your thoughts (scientists love to observe) and label them (scientists love putting labels on things), in a nonjudgmental way (isn’t objectivity the epitome of good science!?). Mindfulness meditation is the most scientific spiritual practice ever.
But we’re not all scientists, and what works for them won’t necessarily work for everyone. If mindfulness meditation hasn’t worked for you, don’t beat yourself up. There is no end of effective meditation strategies to calm the mind.
I’ve worked with arguably some of the most stressed individuals in our society, like veterans returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their trauma is heavy, they have insomnia, anxiety, depression and some even live bunkered up in their basements.
Sitting with their eyes closed and doing nothing is not something these people really get excited about. In fact, it could be anxiety-provoking.
What tends to work for people who have been under incredibly high amounts or stress is shockingly simple: breathing. I gave a TEDx talk on this topic which led people to ask me how they can learn more.
Yoga-based breathing exercises can help those of us who can’t be inactive because it is an active meditation.
It requires that you do something, instead of trying not to do something. It also leads to immediate results. (Breathing can slow your heart rate in minutes, as opposed to mindfulness meditation, which takes repetition over time). In our study, veterans’ PTSD scores normalized within a week of practicing yogic breathing, and the benefits remain as much as 1 year later, suggesting permanent improvement. (The kind of breathing we researched is called Sudarshan Kriya which is taught through the International Association for Human Values and the Art of Living Foundation)
So, should we all be doing these breathing exercises?
Maybe. More importantly, my message to you is to explore your options. If mindfulness isn’t for you, that doesn’t mean meditation isn’t. There are so many forms of meditation. From breathing practices like the one we researched to mantra-based meditations to loving-kindness and compassion meditations. You just have to find the shoe that fits.
The breath can help you tap right into your parasympathetic nervous system—that’s the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system, the opposite of the “fight or flight.” When you breathe slowly and deeply, you start to calm down.
In fact, research shows that when you breathe in, your heart rate speeds up and when you breathe out it slows down. So, a quick way to relax is to lengthen your exhales. No matter where you are—on your commute, a date, or an interview—just tapping into the power of your breath will trigger your relaxation response.
You may even find that, after calming your nervous system with breathing, you actually are able to sit and do nothing more easily.
For more on the link between breathing, happiness and resilience, check out The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success.
A version of this article originally appeared on MindBodyGreen