Meditation and I'm moving backwards?
February 27, 2014 7:51 AM   Subscribe

I think my new mindfulness practice is causing me more anxiety - why is this and how do I handle it?

For background, I'm a 29 year old female and I have been on 100mg of Zoloft for 3 and a half years.

My life improved immeasurably once I started antidepressants - it felt like my mind just went "Shhhhhhhhhh" and I had space to breathe. That, coupled with exercise and on-and-off therapy, has kept me on an even keel for the past 3+ years. Lately I have been feeling dissatisfied with my current state of mind: a little depressed, a little anxious, etc. I also want to eventually go off the Zoloft. And the yoga studio in town is offering a 5-week workshop on mindfulness meditation. So, I signed up.

It's been 2 weeks now. The in-class discussions and meditations are fine. In fact, the solo 5-minute meditations I've been doing upon waking up in the morning and right before I go to sleep are fine. I don't know that I'm 100% "successful" as I meditate but I'm working on focusing my attention and letting go of judgement and all of that and I suppose I'm getting better at it? It's hard to tell.

But the real issue is - in my everyday, non-meditating life, I am anxious as all get out. This anxiety has really come into full force this week, ever since I have got serious about doing short meditations twice a day as detailed above. I haven't been this anxious for a long, long time. Behaviors that I thought I had left behind (obsessive thoughts, nausea and the fear of nausea and vomiting, WebMd-ing) have come back full force. I am able to use my mindfulness strategies to a certain extent. Last night I woke up feeling awful and was able to let it go, telling myself to accept how my body was feeling and not try to judge or explain it, which helped a lot . . . but here I am at work feeling awful again.

I typed out a whole long paragraph detailing my current thought process, then realized it didn't matter. What I want to know is: Is this normal after starting a meditation practice? If it is, how long can I expect it to go on? And what can I do in the meantime so I don't feel like crawling into bed and hiding until it's over?
posted by chainsofreedom to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Despite what you may have heard, meditation will not necessarily make you feel better in your "real" life and could make you feel worse.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:56 AM on February 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Something that is directly counter-productive in meditation is "doing" meditation "for" something: one inevitably ends up more stressed about whether one is able to see some results already, with more self-reproaches and anxiety as a result ("am I not even able to meditate properly?").
Heck, the term "counter-productive" in itself is counter-productive when it comes to meditation. Yes, people meditate to handle stuff better and get grounded and whatnot, but it's not a training program, it's the opposite, an un-training non-regiment of emptiness, that yields no results, but may grant the absence of unnecessary mind-clutter.
In other words, as long as you're counting percents of success for your meditation, there's room for alternatives.
posted by Namlit at 8:04 AM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I also want to eventually go off the Zoloft

This is a sentiment I fundamentally do not understand. You'd never hear someone with diabetes saying "I also want to eventually go off the insulin." Taking medication isn't some kind of moral failing; many of us internalize a lot of the stigma against mental illnesses, most of which boil down to some bullshit version of bootstrapping. So that's something you might want to bear in mind.

It is possible--and really this is something you should discuss with a therapist--that meditation is bringing you into closer touch with your thoughts and feelings, which can be overwhelming without a delineated strategy for coping with them.

I don't know that I'm 100% "successful" as I meditate

This is really the most difficult thing to learn about meditation: you can't have a goal. Those thoughts of acceptance and non-judgement? They need to apply to your meditation practice as well. Do what you do, and don't judge whether you're doing it right or wrong.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:07 AM on February 27, 2014 [8 favorites]

Just to clarify:

I also want to eventually go off the Zoloft

This is a sentiment I fundamentally do not understand.

I know that if I need it, I need it, and that's fine. But the side effects (nighttime jaw clenching and low libido/challenging orgasm) are starting to get to me. At the beginning I felt that they were worth the normalcy I feel being on Zoloft - especially since I didn't have a sex partner! - but I don't know that they are worth the trade-off anymore. I am meeting with the nurse practitioner at my therapist's office next month to discuss medication management.
posted by chainsofreedom at 8:14 AM on February 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm on WellbutrinXL 300mg. No libido issues, no jaw clenching, nothing like that. It is generally well-tolerated in people, and may be a medication you'd like to speak to your prescriber about.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:18 AM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's called a meditation practice rather than a meditation perfect on purpose. We never get it right, but we continue doing it.

Mindfulness doesn't do away with the problem thoughts and issues we have. And in fact, at first you may just be noticing things that you were able to not look at but which were already there. Sounds like you may be experiencing something like that.

But as you mentioned, as you sit with the experiences your body is having, they tend to melt away. It doesn't stop. But with practice and experience, one learns to recognize the experience as it's coming on, let it happen, and watch as it passes.

It's like the Ocean; the waves never stop, and if you can't swim it's terrifying. Meditation practice is like learning to swim. Even a big wave that slams you around passes and then you come up for air and find you're ok.

Right now, you're just doggy-paddling and the waves still look huge. But keep practicing and your strokes will grow stronger. It takes time, and it's not a badge you earn; it's a lifelong practice one engages, because UNmindfulness is the state we tend towards naturally.

A year from now you will be a year older. You can also choose to be a year further down the mindfulness path, a year more practiced.

Or you can just be a year older.

The wave is inevitable. Flounder or body-surf is a choice largely ours to make.

Best of Luck and _/|\_
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:27 AM on February 27, 2014 [26 favorites]

I wish I had advice/ suggestions for you to explain what’s going on, but all I can say is that I did not have that experience and think it is an unusual one. I’m sorry you’re having a hard time and hope it improves soon.
posted by metasarah at 8:29 AM on February 27, 2014

Short answer: it's normal (and actually a very good reason why meditation on its own is not a substitute for meds for people that need them). Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey's advice is great; as he says, it's like the ocean. It never stops, but you do get used to it and building a practice really helps long term. You are at a scary stage because you're suddenly letting yourself confront all the anxieties up close that you normally keep pushed away.

A quote I like:

"Somewhere in this process, you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you never noticed"
-- Henepola Gunartana [on meditation]
posted by susanvance at 8:36 AM on February 27, 2014 [14 favorites]

What is your object of meditation? Is it the breath? love? compassion? watching your thoughts?

If it's a mindfulness "watching the thoughts / experience" type meditation, then this may be too advanced for you, and you may want to pick an easier object like your breath.

I don't know that I'm 100% "successful" as I meditate

no such thing. let go of attachment to results. I have had very deep & profound experiences and then the very next day my mind is as still as a puppy.

If you've been stuffing down your feelings, then meditation may have 'stuff' come up. It was always there, you just weren't ready / willing to look at it. So it's ok that it's coming up and it's not meditation's "fault." Meditation won't stuff away feelings. When I first got into seriously meditation after a few years break, I would feel a tightness in my chest. The monk said this is not uncommon; it's just pent up tension. He advised me to ease up and not grip my object of meditation so tightly.

Has anything happened lately to trigger an anxiety rush?

Sometimes anxiety is worse because we fight the anxiety:But I'm meditating! I shouldn't feel this way! Instead just say: wow, I'm feeling this way.

Another way to remain mindful outside of the meditation cushion is to practice Moral Discipline i.e. you watch your behaviours, your intent; hold back on actions that would be harmful and engage in actions that are beneficial. Sometimes that 'little bit' of self-observation is enough mindfulness to start. Again, the deep kind of 'flow of thoughts' mindfulness is medium-advanced type stuff.

If you can give more details then I could answer some more.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:38 AM on February 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sometimes depression and anxiety happen for a reason. There may be something (or some constellation of things, some kind of pattern or set of situations) happening in your life that plays a role in triggering your depression/anxiety.

Because medication is really great at quieting the brain, if there are things that are sort of low-level bugging you, a medication that's working for you can make it feel less bothersome, to the point of barely noticeable.

I wonder if meditation, by putting you more in touch with the present moment, is putting you more in touch with those situational depression/anxiety triggers, whatever they are.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 8:39 AM on February 27, 2014

What is your object of meditation? Is it the breath? love? compassion? watching your thoughts?

I suppose this is a failing of the "5-week workshop" method of beginning a meditation practice. Ostensibly it is the breath. However, we are reading about and doing short practices of other "objects" in class, and that may be muddying the waters for me.

Has anything happened lately to trigger an anxiety rush?

Yes, much. I am taking on much more responsibility at work involving monthly travel. We missed a bunch of days due to snow and I'm struggling to make up all the classes - and there is administrative tension involved in the makeups. I'm preparing to move in with my significant other at the end of the semester. I am also preparing to do an 8-week intensive Chinese language course this summer and I want to test into the highest level I can. I'm also a perfectionist.

Ok. Much like my meditation practice, I will stop thread-sitting and just let the answers be. :-)
posted by chainsofreedom at 8:47 AM on February 27, 2014

Hi! I am in mindfulness-based therapy for anxiety right now, and my therapist was very open with me about the possibility that the anxiety would get worse before it got better. One way of looking at it is that, before, you were -like you said- telling your mind, "Shhhhh," and trying to block out all those intense thoughts. But now, in meditation, you're turning to face them and listening to what they have to say - maybe for the first time. No wonder it feels intense and overwhelming at first! In a way, it would be surprising if it didn't.

I would suggest possibly finding a therapist who is experienced in mindfulness meditation with whom you can practice - I'm sure the group class is wonderful, but maybe it would be useful to you to have someone who will guide you personally through some of this stuff, so that you won't feel like you're on your own outside of class.

Good luck, and good on you for trying this!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:54 AM on February 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

I just wanted to add - mindfulness can be tricky.

Mindfulness is a part of the mind watching another part of the mind. So at least one part has to be still in order to do this.

If no part of your mind is still then mindfulness can spiral. What to be mindful about? My feelings? My thoughts? The world around me? Oh my god I'm thinking again!!! Therefore 'baby' mindfulness is helpful: what am I saying and doing, and is it with a beneficial intention?

If you're the anxious type, it can be easier to start with breathing meditations. Focus on the physical sensation of the breath, at the nostrils, as you inhale, pause, and exhale. That's it, that's all. Gently focus 100% on the breath. Let that be your meditation for the next few months until you have developed concentration skills. Then move to "watching the flow of the mind" meditations.

I used to teach meditation classes in conjunction with my centre. This one guy came up to me after class and he was like a monkey on a hot plate. He radiated anxiety. His eyes darted and he couldn't finish a sentence without hopping to the next. I had to tell him: sloooow down. 'Observing the mind' meditation is not for you right now. just meditate on compassion right now. Let's calm this ship down.

Another tidbit from a monk: the meditating mind is light and calm. Not gripping and grrr focused and tense.

Honestly these kinds of questions are great things to ask your teacher before/after class. Tell them your experience, don't worry about sounding dumb, and let them help & guide you. It sounds like you've got a lot going on, and maybe the class is moving too fast for you. A new object of meditation every class might be too much, and as things progress the objects can get more & more subtle, which means you might not 'get' it the first (or second, or third) time around.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:02 AM on February 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I also am a rather high-strung and anxious person who decided to try meditating as a way to moderate it.

I was a little confused at first (and still possibly am) about the different types of meditation, but as I understand it, mindfulness meditation centers around observing your thoughts and learning to "be" with them.

Another form of meditation is what I learned in a ZaZen book - not even sure if it has a name - in which the goal is to keep focused on counting breaths and focusing your attention. You try to keep focused on one thing alone (like breaths) and when your thoughts take you elsewhere you train yourself to return to the count - to focus on the here and now.

I much prefer the second form. To me, observing the thoughts keeps me in a "busy" or "anxious" state while forcing myself to refocus brings calm. Once I have done several minutes of just focusing on counting breaths with minimal mental redirects, I try to do several minutes of just "emptying my mind" - ie just sit and not let any thoughts pass through at all. I focus on the sound of my breath (or the washing machine if its running or some noise). If a thought comes up I go back to counting breaths (to 10) until I feel focused again.

I find it very calming and notice I have better focus and calmness outside of meditation.

My 2 cents.
posted by WinterSolstice at 9:49 AM on February 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

To echo your experience...I found when I started my initial mindfulness practice, my new awareness of anxiety and sadness dropped on me like a ton of bricks. I believe my mentor trained me to induce this exactly.

My interior state became undeniable. It was only from that place of awareness that change could begin.

a) Ouch
b) Persistence can be valuable
c) I largely agree with the cap'n and find the wave metaphor useful.
posted by j_curiouser at 1:11 PM on February 27, 2014

I too noticed an uptick in thought spirals, weird bodily sensations, etc, when I started meditating. Freaked me out a little. Apparently it's a common thing - more awareness of your body and mind lead to more awareness of your anxious thoughts and leg cramps. Meditation isn't causing them, you're just paying a little more attention to what is going on inside your body and mind.

No amount of meditation stopped the anxious thoughts. What it did do was help me gain a lot of distance, mentally, from them. Rather than having them front and centre, taking up all of my awareness and blotting out everything else, they carried on to one side. Then they drifted further and further away. They still go on, to a certain degree, but it's much much easier to ignore them.

Have you considered a guided body scan type meditation? I have a couple of mp3's I find useful to listen to. You "send" your mental awareness down into your body and feel the sensations going on there, such as temperature, physical orientation, pain/not pain and so on. Let me know if you're interested and I'll find the details out for you. It helps me focus and slow the chatter and give my brain something to focus on. Following my breaths gets boring rather quickly, unfortunately. Trying a different type of meditation might help you learn the skills before you tackle your anxiety monster.
posted by Solomon at 3:19 PM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

These are all great tips. In my own practice, I sit with semi-open eyes and gaze downwards and focus either on my breathing or simply looking outwards and being in the moment. My insight today is about how imbalanced my brain has become through relying on inner narrative as a way to run my awareness. Mindfulness rebalances that equation. It takes a while to do that to relearn a more balanced structure in your brain for how you operate. I wonder if anxiety is in part a reaction of parts of the brain to the fact that the narrative space has hijacked awareness so much so that other parts of the brain are denied expression, ignored, or walled off in a way. Mindfulness restores the balance. it's a subtle process that takes time to accomplish and learn as a method for being moment to moment. So, if mindfulness is altering the internal strategy of your brain for how it operates, there's the potential for it to begin voiding or changing old methods of walling off fear or worrisome thoughts. When I get fearful, or in a state, I have various strategies to get myself into a better state. You are Not Your Brain is a good book that speaks to this. Also cognitive therapy, then there's physical modalities like yoga and exercise. Mindfulness is not about being perfect, so that's a frame you might want to let go of.
posted by diode at 6:16 AM on February 28, 2014

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