When you think of meditation, do you picture sitting in the lotus position, trying to clear your mind and focus on your breathing? It can be challenging – especially if you’re anxious to begin with and your mind and heart rate are already racing.
Even when I don’t feel anxious before meditating, the very act of trying to quiet down and do these things can cause a spike in my anxiety.
And I know I’m not alone; I’ve been in group sessions where others say the same thing. They feel more anxious, not less, when they try to do breathwork during meditation.
Are You Curious Why This Happens?
When we feel anxious…that feeling stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight-or-flight” mode. Cortisol levels increase, the heart starts beating faster, and the pace of the breath quickens.
It’s very common for people with anxiety to experience an inability to catch or slow their breath, or to increase their awareness of that breath while trying to meditate. [Source: Mindbodygreen]
Today I’m sharing an approach that has helped to lessen my anxiety when I meditate. There are hundreds of different styles of meditation, of course — some involve visualization or mindfulness — but almost all types include breathwork. That’s the part of meditation I’m talking about here.
Before we get too far, I need to make a disclaimer: I’m not an expert on meditation and nothing mentioned here is based on scientific research. I’m simply sharing what has helped me and I hope it helps you, too!
Are you ready for some tips?
1. Set Realistic Expectations for Meditation.
Some of us approach meditation thinking we have to clear our minds completely or reach a nirvana-like state in order to “get it right.” When this doesn’t happen — and it rarely does — we feel like we’ve failed and meditation isn’t for us.
But the goal of meditation isn’t to empty your mind. Instead, allow your thoughts to “float” through your mind without judgment. Over time, you’ll become less attached to them and you’ll be freer to focus on your breathing or a mantra.
The bottom line is you’re not failing at meditation because your mind isn’t a blank state or you’re anxious when you do it. Remember…it’s called a practice for a reason. It takes time to get used to it.
2. Get in a Comfortable Position.
We’re often told to sit in an upright posture (maybe on a cushion in lotus position?) with our backs straight when meditating. Well, I tend to disregard this and just get as comfortable as possible.
I understand the science behind sitting tall to allow better flow of the breath, but I choose not to stress over it. I just find a comfortable position and loosen any tight clothing, especially around the waist and neck.
3. Forget the Fancy Breathwork.
I don’t know about you, but if you tell me to focus on my breath — all of a sudden, I’m shallow breathing and I can’t take in a full breath. Tell me to hold my breath and my chest starts to tighten.
I’ve tried many different intentional breathing exercises – including box breathing, which is taught during Navy Seal training. While box breathing has been proven highly effective in helping the Seals (and others) to remain calm and focused during high-stress situations — it just doesn’t work for me.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t try it. Just for reference, here’s a quick explanation of box breathing and another type called Intermittent Breath Retention – so you can get an idea of what I mean by “fancy breathing.” There are countless others, including alternate nostril breathing.
Box Breathing: Inhale for four seconds; Hold the breath in your lungs for four seconds; Exhale for four seconds and then hold the breath in your lungs for four seconds. Repeat for up to five minutes.
Intermittent Breath Retention: In this one, you inhale for a count of four; hold your breath for a count of seven and then exhale through your mouth for a count of eight. This one seems to be very popular on the internet and I’ve tried it several times. But I get all hung up trying to count and holding my breath for seven seconds causes more anxiety.
4. Try Simple Diaphragmatic Breathing Instead.
Most of the time, this is what works best for me:
- Close your eyes and place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest.
- Inhale deeply through your nose, letting your belly rise.
- Exhale fully with pursed lips through your mouth.
This link to the Cleveland Clinic webpage on diaphragmatic breathing might be helpful.
Sometimes I follow a guided meditation in which I’m prompted to take in a slow full belly breath and then gently let it out. The aim is to lengthen both the inhale and the exhale over your normal breathing pattern. That’s it. No hands on the belly or chest; no forced exhale. This also works well for me.
5. Distract Yourself.
When you’re meditating, your mind will wander away from your breathing to random thoughts and that’s okay. When you become aware of those thoughts, just gently guide yourself back to your breathing without judgment.
You can try using visualizations, gently replacing your thoughts with something like a color, a glowing ball or picturing one of your favorite places.
You can also try repeating a mantra or an affirming phrase. Here’s one example: May I be safe. May I be happy. May I live with ease.
6. Try Guided Meditation.
I’ve also had success with guided meditations available on many apps today. It can be reassuring to listen to a soothing voice guide you through each step. [You’ll need to find a guide who follows the easy breathing technique. I like davidji on Insight Timer, but everyone is different.]
I find that guided meditation lessens the idea that I’m in control or I might be doing something wrong.
Here are just a few meditation apps to consider:
- Insight Timer – this is the one I use most often.
- Breathwrk – I trialed this briefly and found it’s not really guided meditation with an instructor. It’s an on-screen visual prompt that cues you when to inhale/exhale. This one might help with the intentional breathing exercises that involve counting.
7. Finally, Stop Trying to Meditate.
If trying to do breathwork or meditation continues to make you anxious, then maybe it’s not for you. We need to acknowledge that meditation is just one tool available and isn’t for everyone.
Listening to music, walking outdoors or spending time in nature can all have positive effects on our well-being and for many people, are just as effective as a formal meditation practice.
If you continue to suffer from anxiety or find yourself agitated when you focus on breathwork, then consider reaching out to a qualified mental health practitioner. I hope you don’t give in to the stigma surrounding seeking outside help.
Now it’s your turn. Do you struggle with anxiety when you focus on your breath during meditation? Are any of these tips helpful? Let me know!
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