The Dark Side of Mindfulness
For some people, meditation is a soothing place in their mind where all the stress of the moment simply fades into oblivion. They discover it relieves their depression, anxiety, fear and stress.
That is not my experience with mindfulness. In fact, practicing being mindful causes my anxiety to increase which in turn makes me feel fearful. Now that I’m fearful I start to feel the stress build. The harder I try to meditate on the moment the more frustrated I become as a non-stop flow of the words “concentrate,” “shhhh,” and “be present,” invade my mind.
I have downloaded apps, read mindfulness for dummies, been to classes and even tried a one on one coaching session. It never fails, in the same moment that I am to quiet my thoughts and focus on the feel of my feet on the floor, my mind begins to make tomorrow’s
to-do list and review what still must be done today. Then there are the good days when I’m task free and my agenda for the next day is clear. You would think that on those days mindfulness would be a breeze. Not so. On those bright cheery carefree days, mindfulness turns my mood dark. We all have past choices we would change if we could, and every single bad choice I ever made comes rolling into my silent self’s brain. Now my mood is drastically altered and it lingers for the rest of the day. Sometimes even into the next day and the day after that.
Who actually practices mindfulness?
Mindfulness is simply the practicing of being still and focusing on being present in this very moment. Using your 5 senses you become aware of the smell in the air and the feel of fabric against your skin. You hear the buzz of the refrigerator, the hum of the air conditioner or maybe each bird as it calls out looking for a mate. If you open your eyes you see each object for what it is and all is as it should be. In the last few years, the practice of mindfulness has become wildly popular. I can seldom get through a magazine or newsfeed without seeing a headline about how mindfulness will change my life.
Companies such as Google, Sony, and Apple, as well as government agencies, have adopted this meditation practice and schedule it into their employees work day. They say it leads to increased productivity, less sick days and happier employees. It has also been extremely beneficial to an enormous number of people as demonstrated by the sales of apps, books, and mindfulness training sessions. Mindfulness programs are being implemented in prisons, therapy groups, and schools. It is the “go-to” approach for anxiety, depression, OCD, stress relief, chronic pain relief, and the list goes on. It is the new cure for every ailment that afflicts our mind and sometimes our body. However, it is also a blanket approach to reducing stress and when applied to everyone it is sure to backfire somewhere.
It doesn’t work for everyone
Studies are quick to point out the benefits and high success rates of mindfulness meditation. They report patients have less anxiety and respond to stressful situations in a manner that reduces their overall stress level.
I do believe something is amiss here. I have discovered I am not the only person to suffer negatively from this fix-all solution.
Not all meditation is useful or beneficial to all people. In their book The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?, Psychologists Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm look at 40 years of studies about meditation and its effects on people. In addition, they conducted their own studies testing the stress relieving effects of yoga meditation using inmates with violent records. From the results of these studies along with their research from the last 40 years they determined:
- The evidence for lasting change from practicing meditation is weak.
- The studies have been conducted poorly. The sample sizes have been too small, they lack a proper control group, and the researchers conducting the study are prone to bias.
- There is a downside to meditation such as breakdowns, violent behavior, increased anxiety and these behaviors are seldom discussed by those advocating mindfulness. (See the chapter The Dark Side of Meditation)
Those who have tried mindfulness in a desperate hope to relieve their suffering and found it made things worse end up feeling even more broken and alone. They begin to think they are beyond repair or that they did it wrong. Using a mindfulness coach may not be as helpful as you think. There is no training for coaches or mindfulness teachers and anyone who has a mind to do so can call themselves a mindfulness coach. This can be a dangerous practice as these coaches are unprepared for a potential client breakdown and are rarely capable of knowing how to help people if it goes too far.
Trends come and go, but while they are at their high, conflicting results are hushed. Media inflates the positive effects of mindfulness and it becomes a business rather than a practice. Like all businesses, there is a product to sell. Negative impacts on consumers will be left out of reviews and downplayed everywhere else. Actual studies that measure the negative experiences people have from practicing mindfulness have either not been conducted or the researchers have been discouraged from reporting the results. Our mental health has become profitable.
Alternative stress relieving options
There are many pursuits that can have a stress relieving component to them. How we relieve our anxiety and what endeavors we find relaxing vary and are different for each of us. Personally, I dumped mindfulness meditation and switched to journaling and writing poetry. I also find listening to music and reading a good book is stress relieving.
There is no right or wrong way to relieve stress and anxiety. It’s about what works for you. Another trend that has surfaced recently is coloring. It can be a coloring book and crayons, markers, paints, pencils or an app on your phone. Some other alternatives include:
- Muscle relaxation
- Deep breathing exercises
- Playing a musical instrument
Relaxation comes in many forms and is an individual experience. It is important to have a sense of peace and calm in your day for at least 20 minutes, longer if you can manage it. Relaxation calms the mind, body, and spirit allowing you to make better choices, feel physically stronger, and think happier thoughts.