When Mindfulness makes us feel worse
Many of us are first attracted to mindfulness by it's potential to help us to calm ourselves and reduce stress. It certainly is true that people who start and continue to practice mindfulness meditation often report improvements in stress which have been backed up in some studies by physiological findings including reduced blood pressure and lower levels of stress hormones measured. So it may come as a surprise that sometimes our mindfulness practice can make us feel worse.
The focus of this post is on thoughts, feelings and sensations that occur moment by moment during or shortly after a mindfulness practice that can be challenging. If you experience longer term problems which seem to be linked to your meditation practice it's a good idea to temporarily stop your practice and speak to a mindfulness teacher about your experience. Meditation can occasionally trigger serious emotional reactions which require the guidance of an experienced mindfulness teacher or therapist. More often, we might notice occasions during our mindfulness practice when we are more aware than we would usually be of thoughts, feelings and sensations that we find difficult.
A regular mindfulness practice will increase our awareness. We may enjoy our greater awareness of things that we used to take for granted such as the feeling of being with loved ones or a connection with the natural world. We are also likely to become more aware of some of our more unpleasant or difficult thoughts and feelings when we practice mindfulness. A common mistake is to assume that mindfulness caused these feelings. It is more likely that our greater awareness is causing us to notice for the first time what has always been there.
If our mindfulness practice causes us to experience more difficult thoughts and feelings, which we might have been suppressing for some time, there has to be a silver lining to this cloud. The silver lining is that our greater awareness of some of our more difficult thoughts and feelings opens up the possibility of being able to choose how to respond. After all, there are no 'bad' emotions, thoughts or coping strategies. It's just that we can get overwhelmed by how we feel, and pulled into a cycle of feeding into these feelings by trying to fight against them. When we connect with the feelings during mindfulness practice we have the opportunity to go against this cycle by not fighting how we feel and by being patient and gentle with ourselves.
The most important impact of our mindfulness practice may be a willingness to be gentle with ourselves as we stay with our difficulty. From this willingness comes the possibility of a different and more helpful response. We may recognise that it is tough to feel the way that we do. We may choose to deliberately bring kindness to the difficulties that we are experiencing. It's worth remembering, when times are tough we need kindness, not criticism, from ourselves as well as others.