Why Mindfulness Backfires for Some People
One February night a few years ago, I sat on my bed and began taking deep breaths. Determined to finally get my escalating anxiety under control, I’d asked my therapist for the simplest path to mindfulness. She told me to start small, and that it was part of a practice. Which meant that it wasn’t an instant cure, but something that got stronger the more time you spent with it.
So I set my timer for about five minutes and vowed to stay in the moment. Eventually — whether over the next hundred seconds or several hundred weeks — my anxiety would melt away, and I would be all better. I told myself this while checking the clock.
I carried on like this for a little over a week. But cruelly, no matter how present I tried to stay in increments of five or 10 minutes, by bedtime I’d find myself wide awake and worrying about whether I’d ever fall asleep. Or how I’d get my work done the next day if I pulled an involuntary all-nighter. I’d calculate the greater impact of my inability to reel in my fears and doubts, and prepare to be excommunicated from my therapist when she learned how bad at meditating I was. And it only got worse. Finally, after a particularly painful meltdown, I opened up to my mom who urged me to speak with my doctor. And from there, I accepted a prescription for Zoloft while being assured that I wasn’t a lost cause or broken person. Sometimes, you just need a little more than what mindfulness or meditation can do on their own. But now I would almost rather do anything than either.
And I’m not alone. A recent study concluded that upwards of 8% of people can experience unwanted negative effects after practicing meditation. Anxiety and depression symptoms can worsen as the brain “rebels,” attempting to regain control of the mind. And reading this, I felt vindicated. Maybe — as I battled anxiety attacks and tears while meditating — I wasn’t a doomed soul unable to find peace. Maybe my brain was just looking out for me in its own way.
Or I just misunderstood mindfulness. It turns out, meditating with the specific goal of controlling and reducing anxiety can sometimes backfire. Because that’s just not how it works.
Anxiety and depression symptoms can worsen as the brain ‘rebels,’ attempting to regain control of the mind.
“The single biggest misconception about mindfulness is about what it’s designed to help you do,” Natalie Dattilo, PhD, director of psychology in the department of psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, explained to me over email. “It was never intended to help you ‘clear your mind’ or even help you feel relaxed. The point of mindfulness practice is to ‘exercise’ your executive functioning centers and strengthen your ability to focus.”
In other words, it’s not about magically melting away anxiety. It’s about training your brain over time to work with you rather than against you, paying attention to what you actually want to be thinking about rather than whatever’s bringing you stress and rumination, she says. And as my therapist had told me — and which I’d conveniently ignored — it doesn’t happen instantly.
“Most of the time, what I see is that people abandon the practice before they experience the benefit, or get frustrated because they think it’s not working,” Dattilo adds. “And I can see how that might turn people off, but I also think it highlights the importance of understanding what it’s designed to do and working with an experienced mindfulness practitioner.”
(Worth noting: The help of a practitioner is crucial if you’re struggling with symptoms like psychosis or psychotic thoughts, if you have a history of suicidal ideation or significant trauma, or if you’re experiencing disassociation or intrusive recollections, Dattilo says.)
In fact, according to New York-based clinical psychologist Chloe Carmichael, PhD, one of the biggest myths about mindfulness and meditation is “the idea that focusing on anxiety or depressive thoughts in an unfiltered manner would be a vehicle to dispel them.”
“If the meditator can recognize the maladaptive thoughts as maladaptive,” Carmichael tells me via email, “then meditation can help to increase this awareness. If the meditator doesn’t recognize the thoughts as maladaptive, then meditating upon the thoughts may simply increase their intensity.”
Which may explain my difficulty with meditating. Sitting there, eyes closed and timer on, I treated the practice as a cure-all for a disorder that had likely long called for medication, too. I was already on a mood stabilizer when, years ago, my doctor told me that an antidepressant may also be helpful. And I, a person who tends to think she has the answers to everything despite having zero actual answers, decided it wouldn’t be. Even when I began existing in the darker corners of my brain. I didn’t want to be judged for taking too many meds, even though I (ironically) spoke about the importance of open mental health discourse for years.
Meditation and mindfulness seemed like the answer, instead of an answer. And now nearly two years out from starting my antidepressant, I can recognize that mental illness isn’t something that can be solved overnight, that you work at it continually, whether medicated or not.
“Remember that mindfulness is more than simply ‘being present’ or ‘focusing on’ something,” Carmichael says. “Mindfulness involves metacognition, which is thinking about the thinking, and recognizing each thought or moment in its broader context.”
“If the meditator doesn’t recognize the thoughts as maladaptive, then meditating upon the thoughts may simply increase their intensity.”
Which, for the record, is the key to getting the most of mindfulness, or at least avoiding the wrong approach to the practice.
“Remember that mindfulness derives from Buddhism, and that in Buddhism the sangha (Sanskrit for community) is considered an essential part of the practice,” Carmichael tells me. “This means that practicing mindfulness in a vacuum where we don’t discuss our experiences with anyone would not be considered helpful. [It] doesn’t mean you have to share every mindful observation or experience with others, but it does suggest that you should have someone — a therapist, a friend, or at least a written journal — with whom you put your experiences into words.
“The act of putting your observations into specific word choices and then reflecting on them, whether through conversation or rereading your journal entry, is an important part of the process,” she adds. “This is why, while I like apps like Calm and Headspace, I really recommend that people find some way to verbalize their experiences after using the app.”
The thing is, when done with the right approach, mindfulness really is powerful, Dattilo says. “Mindfulness has been shown to be a valid approach to treating mental health disorders,” she says. “It has strong scientific support for its effectiveness in the prevention of depression relapse and in reducing rumination. It has been studied quite extensively in chronic pain management, addiction relapse prevention, appetite awareness for binge eating disorder — the list goes on and on.”
And if sitting and breathing doesn’t float your boat, remember that “traditional” meditation is far from the only way to practice mindfulness. In fact, one of the best ways to do it is to work it into everyday parts of your routine: “Practice drinking your coffee mindfully, washing your hands mindfully, walking mindfully, folding clothes mindfully, washing dishes mindfully. [And] this simply means while you are doing those things, bring your full attention to it. You are simply training your brain to focus on what’s happening right in front of you, right here [and] now,” Dattilo says.
As of this moment, I’m more afraid of the stigma I attached to “mindfulness” than actually trying to live mindfully. But over the course of the pandemic in particular, I’ve found myself forcing myself to slow down so I don’t get lost in what-ifs or how scared I am about, well, everything. I drink my tea in the morning and look outside at the misting dew. I go for walks with my dad and listen when he tells me about growing up in our hometown. I accept, for better or worse, that I’m doing what I can, even if it feels like nothing. That I’m not in control — not of my work, not of my loved ones, not of my own immune system — and that we are all united in the same sense of helplessness. I take my pills every morning and evening. The anxiety I feel now is of the same species as the anxiety I had before, but sits someplace else — someplace where it doesn’t loom so large. I’ve accepted that it will exist with me always, but it’s not an enemy I need to defeat.
“You know,” my therapist said to me recently. “We may not like using the word here, but what you’re doing…”
“Don’t say it!” I laugh-yelled back.
I still refuse to sit and meditate. But I will accept that when I take in the foggy fall mornings, I do think only of how magical it looks and how great my tea tastes. And even if that moment is fleeting, it is still one that is mine.