Recently a colleague shared an article she’d read, “How Too Much Mindfulness Can Spike Anxiety.” As a mindfulness teacher, obviously I don’t want to make people more anxious than they already are, and there’s a lot of anxiety out there these days! So here is my analysis of the article, and my conclusions about whether mindfulness relieves anxiety, or makes it worse.
The author speaks from his own experience with mindfulness meditation, and as someone who suffers from anxiety and worry, noting that while often MM helps him feel better, sometimes it does not, and he actually feels worse after meditating. He then cites a couple of studies, quoting an expert, Willoughby Britton at Brown University, that suggest anywhere from 8% to 25% of mindfulness meditators experience increased anxiety or other “adverse effects.”
My reaction to reading this article was, Hmm, it sounds like the author wants meditation practice to be like Xanax, to relieve his anxiety after 20 minutes. But that’s not how mindfulness meditation works. I’ve practiced it regularly for more than a decade, and I can say that it has done wonders to relieve my anxiety, and yet I still have anxiety sometimes. Don’t we all?
Mindfulness meditation is neither Xanax nor Prozac. Nor is it exercise or psychotherapy, though it functions similarly to both of those, in that its benefits are not always visible in the first session, or in any one session, but rather accrue gradually and sometimes very subtly over time. In fact, another name for mindfulness meditation is Insight meditation, because regular practice yields insight and increased self-awareness, just like psychotherapy.
Apparently this was a very popular article, so clearly it resonates with a lot of people, but I’m afraid it may reinforce the skepticism or hesitation that people naturally have about whether MM will benefit them. These study results aren’t surprising, nor unknown to most MM teachers. MM increases self-awareness, so yes, there may be more awareness of anxiety or other negative mental and emotional states during or following a meditation session.
I would like to ask the article’s author, so when you became aware of greater anxiety, then what? What did you do? Because awareness without action is like, well, realizing you’re hungry and not eating. In the time between awareness and action, there’s discomfort. I sometimes see this with my therapy clients, and in fact I tell them, “therapy may make you feel worse before you can feel better.” That’s because you need to have the awareness first, before you can begin to take steps toward change, but insight alone won’t get you to happiness.
Unfortunately, the article did not mention Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy, a curriculum specifically developed for people who have anxiety, depression, or are prone to ruminative thinking, and therefore includes specific instruction that addresses these issues directly. That’s a big part of what I teach in my classes, and also to most of my clients.