Meditation Freakout
April 10, 2011 4:40 PM   Subscribe

You are not my therapist but maybe you know about meditation? I'm back into my mindful meditation routine and I'm fairly new at it. The last three sittings I've had have brought up intense tears and a body sensation that screams RUN AWAY which usually causes me to stop that session as it is too intense. Of course I'll bring this up with my therapist but that appointment is a wee ways off. Is this common? Something I should be afraid of? Something I should stop meditating because of? Why would this occur? How do I get thru the intense panic and return to the breath?
posted by kanata to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, it's common. The brain is used to being constantly distracted, and it gets freaked out sometimes if it's not. How long are you sitting for? Beginners should really only do 5-10 minutes. I don't see any need to push through it if you are a beginner; you don't want to develop a negative association with it. Are you doing this through a school or meditation center? Do you have a sangha? Talk to someone there. You don't need to do this alone.
posted by desjardins at 4:56 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mark Epstein (Buddhist psychotherapist) discusses this phenomenon a bit in Thoughts Without a Thinker, which you might find helpful to read.
posted by scody at 5:07 PM on April 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Definitely bring it up with your therapist, but you might want to gently poke around the edges here in the meantime. What you want to do is find a way to get to the edge of that scary sensation and hover there, as it were.

If you can visualize this, it might help - like you're getting close to some kind of big hole, or tender raw area, a black hole, or whatever, and just approach it slowly. Gently breath into it if you are able. No pressure, just be in a place where you can gently bring your focus back to your breath. Maybe you'll have a bit of an awareness of that scary place, but it's in the background, or off to the side. Just gently see if you can stay there and be aware of both sensations - the calmness of your breath and the echoes of the fear at the same time. If you can't, it's fine, just back off a bit more. Feel free to back off altogether, and gently end your session early - what you want to do is to give yourself that message that you care about your safety, that you can control the distance you are from that scary place, and that you're also curious about what's going on there.

If you find you are unable to do this on your own, that you tend to get swallowed up there, it's probably wise to delay further practice until you get your therapist's guidance. Sometimes people with trauma histories need to work on this kind of thing very carefully and slowly.

There is no need to worry, no need to pressure yourself to go further, no need to venture into places that feel unsafe. If you start to feel that urge to run away, gently thank that voice for looking out for you and just take another breath or two, so that you can land softly.
posted by jasper411 at 5:08 PM on April 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yes, it's very common. This happens to me all the time with yoga and meditation. I'm frequently the woman sobbing while doing child's pose. It also happens in meditation, I just try to breathe and ride the wave of the emotion. It's good to let it out instead of trying to stifle it.
posted by Sal and Richard at 5:15 PM on April 10, 2011

I've had guided meditations that have helped me a ton.. They focused on sort of pretending you're breathing through different parts of your body... It brings awareness and focus to the energy within your body, and it's really calming because it uses the rhythm of your breath. Send me a memail if you want a full walkthrough of the exercise that's been taught to me...
posted by Glendale at 5:17 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree that if you are a beginner you should only be doing about 5-10 minutes. Tara Brach addresses this often in her podcasts and on this cd, she is a meditation teacher and therapists. I believe she says when something unpleasant comes up, acknowledge it, bow to it but then gently put it aside. This happens to me in meditation and yoga but when i acknowledge, observe it, try not to be attached to it, i feel peace if I make it that far. Good luck.
posted by dmbfan93 at 5:20 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are lots of different kinds of meditation - they aren't all the sort that promote looking into the abyss in this way. For example, you can chant a saying, you can focus on your bodily sensations, or you can pair it with physical movement (aka yoga). The point is to soothe your mind and take it out of the habitual patterns of reacting - there is no need to do something that brings up such dark thoughts.

You might want to think about joining a community of meditators, since being in a room with others might be more grounding and safe for you, and provide you with some knowledgeable guidance. Another idea might be a Quaker meeting, where the prayerful silence has a sort of more ... supported and directed quality to it.

Ultimately, I think the important thing for you here is to trust your experience and determine for yourself whether a particular practice is good for you. Just because people say mindfullness meditation is good doesn't mean it is good for you right now.
posted by yarly at 5:45 PM on April 10, 2011

When that happens to me (and it does) it's usually a sign that a) it's been too long since I meditated and b) that I'm stressed, either in general or about something in particular. If it's too strong to ignore, I usually try to figure out the stray thoughts that popped up as that feeling was coming up and figure out what's bugging me. That process is more reflection than meditation, but I find it just as helpful when I have not been coping with some stressor well.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:25 PM on April 10, 2011

It's super common. You might find working with guided meditation a good path into the practice until you're more comfortable working with what comes up for you - the words give the anxious part of your brain something to focus on instead of the panic. The Mindful Way Through Depression is a good book/CD combination that also looks specifically about how mindful meditation can be used to treat anxiety and depression, and how to deal with the feelings that come up as you practice.
posted by judith at 7:29 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yep me too! I find that mindfulness meditation will bring on a wave of anxiety that just threatens to burst out of me. I find it easier just to go with it, rather than fighting it and it usually subsides. As others have mentioned, it's usually a sign that I'm suppressing something so it gives me the chance to address it (if I can).
posted by prettypretty at 8:19 PM on April 10, 2011

A walking meditation might be a more gentle practice right now.
posted by jade east at 10:02 PM on April 10, 2011

It's common. I came here to suggest (like jade east) walking meditation or another type of meditation that allows you to be more "awake" or in tune with reality while you practice.
posted by medusa at 10:13 AM on April 11, 2011

FYI, Zen walking meditation is called kinhin, if you need a search term.
posted by desjardins at 10:47 AM on April 11, 2011

Seconding everything jasper said. Look into the abyss, accept it, but it's fine to take your time in doing so; dancing at the edge of it, exploring. Don't try to fight it or try to return to your breath too hard; that is a technique to help you become open, but openness is the key. If feelings arise like this scary place you describe, then *those* are then the 'objects' of your meditation, not your breath. Allow it as much as possible, but like jasper said, you don't have to go all the way in--though I'm not saying that wouldn't be an option (only you can decide that). Don't be too attached to your meditation position, don't resist--if you feel like standing up, putting your head in your hands, shaking your fist...whatever you might need to do to safely express the energy. Let those tears come freely and totally when they do.

Your ego might be getting really scared--it's built up these artificial walls in your consciousness to try to protect, however misguided, and it seems like you've decided it's time they dissolved. So it's understandable there's fear there. I think it's awesome that you are meditating and that it's taken you to this place. This seems like a good place to be, actually! I disagree with any of the commentators who are saying find another meditation, try something else... I think that this abyss you have got to is actually a sign you ARE going in the right direction, as long as you are approaching your meditation technique/sessions gently without forcefulness, always allowing. Be gentle with yourself and open to what it means and how it might be experienced. Meditation is awareness, a going into, not a soothing pill that bypasses the so-called 'negative' things, not resistance.

Awareness itself is healing and liberating--that is the whole point. Consider experiencing the panic totally.
posted by Thinkmontgolfier at 11:42 AM on April 11, 2011

I believe these are things that have been suppressed, and that have been trying to come to your attention. It will pass.
posted by theora55 at 12:56 PM on April 11, 2011

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