“Just close your eyes and let your mind go,” they all say.
“It’s amazing,” they all say.
“It changed my life,” they all say.
Yeah, that’s what they all say.
There’s a truckload of research suggesting that meditation, and related techniques like mindfulness, are effective emotional health boosters. From keeping a gratitude journal to practicing deep breathing to cultivating more objectivity with your thoughts, the breadth of activities seems endless.
Maybe by now you’ve tried a bunch and they just haven’t helped. Or they actually made you feel more stressed. Are you some kind of weirdo who’s not doing it right? Is it even possible to fail at meditation?
For the record, this isn’t a “never meditate” story. But for a surprising number of people, meditation isn’t an ohmm-I’m-sohmm-calmm activity.
Meditation as Agitator?
Get ready to learn a new acronym: There’s something called an MAE, or “meditation adverse event.” In a 2020 research review of 83 meditation studies, 65 percent of the subjects reported at least one type of MAE. The most common were anxiety and depression symptoms, but there were also gastrointestinal problems. (These people didn’t have a previous history of mental health issues.)
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Additional studies cite similar concerns (with similarly oh-look-there’s-a-new-acronym acronyms), and although the majority of effects were transitory—meaning they mostly lasted just a few minutes to a few hours—this my explain why you’re not alone in not loving meditation.
- “Unwanted Effects” (UE). In a 2017 study of college-educated women, one out of four experienced UEs from meditation and mindfulness practice, typically when meditating alone for more than 20 minutes. These ranged from boredom and self-criticism to less motivation, greater awareness of their own negative traits, and lack of interest in people’s conversations.
- “Meditation-Related Side Effects” (MRSE). A Brown University study found even higher instances of side effects during an eight-week mindfulness program. A full 83 percent claimed at least one MRSE, with 6 to 14 percent having “lasting bad effects,” which included hyperarousal (an increased level of responsiveness to things) and dissociation.
- Bad ZZZs. While meditation is meant to chill out the nervous system, it doesn’t always work that way. Another study from Brown University found that, while practicing meditation/mindfulness, some people reported poor sleep patterns, possibly due to “increased cortical arousal”—or, in non-jargon, means increased wakefulness and heart rate.
Why would meditation, whose goal it is to reduce anxiety, actually cause it? One theory, says Melinda Nasti, director of spiritual wellness at Northwell Health in New York, is that sitting in stillness with your thoughts could bring up negative emotions or previous trauma, and that might feel destabilizing.
Still Wanna Be a Meditator?
So we’ve confirmed that you needn’t feel like a lone wolf in finding meditation a bummer. But if you wish wish wish it could help you, first tweak your approach: Instead of assuming meditation will be all peace and harmony, go into a meditation attempt knowing it could bring up tons of feelings, says Nasti.
Second, reconsider your ideas on what meditation even is, because your own interpretation may be overwhelming. For example, you might reckon it’ll only work if you sit perfectly still for an hour, eyes closed, zero dark thoughts bubbling to the surface.
It doesn’t have to be like that.
“This is a practice that will grow and change over time, so it’s worth seeing if a few simple techniques could become helpful for you,” says Nasti, adding that playing around with different strategies is especially useful if you’re prone to negative thoughts.
Two alternatives to the traditional butt-on-a-cushion meditation:
1. Use a Guided Meditation App
If the idea of sitting quietly letting your monkey mind scatter into a thousand directions doesn’t sound like the direction for you, you might like guided meditation where an instructor tells you what to do, says Ciarán Friel, Ed.D., assistant investigator at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in New York, who studies the behavioral effects of health-related apps.
As with an exercise novice, meditation newbies usually want to start small, with short sessions a couple times a week to build a healthy habit, says Friel. “You may feel awkward at first, and some days will be easier than others, but you can improve over time with consistency.”
2. Be Mindful of What’s Around You
Mindfulness and meditation are often used as synonyms, but they can be distinct. For instance, some types of meditation have you following guided imagery, while mindfulness is simply the practice of noticing what’s around you.
All you need is 10 to 30 seconds a few times throughout the day. Stop what you’re doing and focus: What color is the sky? Do the trees have buds? What’s the first bite of your lunch taste like? Nasti says these shorter bursts may have fewer negative side effects because you’re not setting high expectations for them, like you might for a seated, focused meditation session.
“It’s just a matter of being intentional and paying attention, which can bring some relief from your thoughts,” says Nasti. “The more you practice this, the more likely you are to start doing it automatically instead of intentionally. That can help alleviate stress and make you feel more present.”
No Dice? No Problemo
When you’ve tried and still feel crummy, but you’re a type A perfectionist who now feels crummier you couldn’t make it work, we’re here to tell you: It’s ok to stop. So is Travis Westbrook, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist from the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, who specializes in depression, anxiety, and life transitions. You didn’t “fail meditation,” he says. It just wasn’t the right fit for you.
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“You might feel a sense of defeat because you’ve heard that meditation and mindfulness are supposed to help you,” Westbrook explains. “You may be pressuring yourself and setting expectations that can end up making you feel frustrated. Take that pressure off and switch to activities that actually make you feel less stressed and alleviate your depression and anxiety instead.”