A couple of summers ago I agreed to participate in a famous online mindfulness program with some of my counseling colleagues. We had been studying mindfulness and thought that this would be a more formal way to bring mindfulness into our daily lives. I wholeheartedly embraced the daily practices and hoped that my anxiety would improve.
Several weeks into the practice, I found myself hanging out my car window screaming at someone who had just cut me off at a light near my house. There was a point in my rant when I wondered what was happening to me because I didn’t recognize myself in the screaming person who I was in that moment. Rather than improving my anxiety, I found myself irritable and full of anger.
As I do with most things, I went to the internet to begin my search for information about why mindfulness and meditation seemed to bring out my worst self rather than helping me to feel calm and relaxed. Almost everything I found touted the positives of mindfulness and meditation with the barest hint here and there that some people might have very different experiences.
Just a couple of years later, more people are sharing negative experiences related to mindfulness and mediation, and mental health professionals are publishing more material about anxiety, trauma, and mindfulness. (I’ve included a couple of books and links below this post that you may be interested in.)
Maybe, you’ve read a lot about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation, and you thought it would be just what you needed. Then you tried it, and you found that rather than improving your anxiety or allowing you to move past your trauma, it made things worse. This can happen. So, what do you do now?
When approached with self-compassion and caution, mindfulness practices can be very helpful for anxiety and/or trauma.
Here are some strategies and cautions for approaching mindfulness and meditation practices when traditional practices don’t work for you.
(Note: if you experience a worsening of symptoms, please seek assistance from an experienced meditation teacher or mental health professional.)
Practice very short meditations of 5 minutes or less and gradually increase time, if you would like and you find it helpful.
Keep your eyes open or partially open.
Choose a position (seated on the floor, in a chair, lying down) that helps you stay present and be calm.
Focus on your five senses rather than on what’s going on inside of you (like breathing or internal sensations).
Here are some examples of what you might focus on:
Listen to birds, traffic, a fan.
Focus on the taste or smell of a mint.
Look at art on the wall or a tree out the window.
Change positions or take a break if you become anxious or spacey.
Finally, if you are including yoga or movement practices as part of your mindfulness practice, choose postures that focus on strength and/or balance rather than stretching.
Here’s a quick seated practice that you can use throughout the day to bring yourself into the present moment where, in all likelihood, you are safe and nothing notable is happening. (If you are not in a safe place, find safety!)
Bring yourself into your space by looking around. Notice the color of the walls, any artwork or plants in your space, any sounds that catch your attention. Bring your attention to your chair. Maybe you feel the texture of the chair with your hand or you feel yourself seated in the chair or leaning against the chair. Give yourself a moment to feel supported. As you’re ready to return to your activity try to carry this feeling of support with you.
If you’d like more information on mindfulness for anxiety and trauma, here are some resources:
The Body Remembers, Volume 2, by Babette Rothschild (The strategies and cautions presented here come from the final chapter in this book.)
Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness by David A. Treleaven
Also check out some articles and research by Willoughby Britton:
I am a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Registered Yoga teacher in Grapevine, Texas. I work with people struggling with anxiety and the effects of trauma.