Is mindfulness making you more anxious? Why you might be doing mindfulness wrong
By Anthony Berrick | July 1, 2019
Mindfulness – the process of paying attention to your experiences as they unfold in each moment – has taken the mental health world by storm. There is now a large body of empirical research demonstrating numerous benefits of mindfulness meditation1, as well as a number of evidence-based approaches in psychology that utilise mindfulness skills.
However, when mindfulness meditation is used as a technique to control unwanted thoughts and feelings, it can quickly become part of the problem instead of the solution.
The problem of control
I see many clients who have been down this road with mindfulness meditation – trying desperately to control their feelings of fear, anxiety or panic with mindfulness techniques – only to find that they feel even more anxious as a result. Worse still, their lives are often put on hold while they wait for their unwanted feelings to subside.
It's not surprising that mindfulness is frequently misunderstood in this way, as it’s often promoted as a path to positive mood and a less stressed or anxious life.
For example, HealthDirect, the Australian government-funded health information and advice service, states on their ‘benefits of mindfulness’ fact-sheet that “taking control of your thoughts and feelings can help reduce stress and anxiety”.2
Well, yes, if you could control your thoughts and feelings with mindfulness, then you could simply choose to feel less stress and anxiety. Problem solved. However, since your thoughts and feelings in any given moment are a product of your learning history, and the context in which you find yourself, this just isn’t a realistic strategy.
In fact, attempts to control unwanted thoughts and feelings are often counter-productive in that they actually end up creating further distress (like anxiety about getting anxious), and are, paradoxically, the cause of many anxiety disorders.
On the other hand, when mindfulness skills are used to enhance psychological flexibility – the ability to make room for difficult thoughts and feelings, and take action based on values and goals – mindfulness can be an incredibly powerful tool for overcoming an anxiety disorder.
I believe this fundamental misunderstanding about mindfulness means that many people are approaching mindfulness the wrong way and missing out on the true benefits that these skills can offer.
Acceptance and committed action
Incorporating acceptance into how you use mindfulness, instead of trying to use it as a control strategy, is fundamental to breaking free from the vicious cycle of struggle with your emotions.
Additionally, focusing on values and committed action, while using mindfulness skills to make room for difficult inner experiences, enables you to live a full and meaningful life regardless of how anxious you may be feeling at any given moment.
As an added bonus, we know from decades of scientific research on the most effective interventions for anxiety disorders, that facing your fears with openness, curiosity and willingness, is the single most effective way to overcome them.3
So, paradoxically, an acceptance-based approach is actually more likely to lead to a reduction in anxiety than a strategy based on trying to control emotions.
Taking this approach to mindfulness skills also means that you don’t actually need to ‘meditate’ per se. Or at least probably not nearly as much as you might think you need to in order to experience profound benefits.
Learning new skills
Instead, let’s think about learning mindfulness skills in the same way we might think about learning other skills. Take tennis for example. Let’s say a friend invites you to join his social tennis club – which sounds like a lot of fun except for the fact that you’ve never even held a tennis racquet before, let alone played a match. What would you do if you wanted to take part?
Firstly, you might get some coaching. This would probably consist of learning and practising the fundamental skills (racquet grip, forehand, backhand, service, volley etc.), as well as the rules of the game. To begin with, you would practise these basic skills by performing some drills – hitting lots of forehand shots over and over again, for example.
Eventually, once you achieve a basic level of competency with these skills, you could probably start having some rallies and even playing some friendly games with your buddy.
Over time, simply playing with your friend would allow you to improve your skills further and figure out what does and doesn’t work well in an actual game. You might then decide to stop practice-drills altogether, although you could of course continue doing these if you enjoyed them or still found them helpful.
Before long, you’d be a good enough tennis player to participate in the social tennis club with your friend without making a complete fool of yourself or annoying the hell out of your opponents. Who knows, you might even win a few matches, depending how good the competition is.
And so it goes with developing mindfulness skills.
Using mindfulness skills to get unstuck
I often introduce these skills to new clients using mindfulness meditation, as these ‘drills’ allow them to develop a basic level of understanding and competency in mindfulness skills before they start trying to put them into practice.
But, while both 'formal' mindfulness meditation and the 'informal' use of mindfulness skills have been found to enhance wellbeing, only the latter type of mindfulness practice has been shown to promote psychological flexibility (i.e. the capacity to do what matters to you even when you're feeling crap).4
So, as soon as is practical, I invite clients to begin using their mindfulness skills in everyday real-life situations so that they can learn how to use them to be more present, open up to their thoughts, feelings, sensations and urges, and focus on doing what matters.
Finally, I work with my clients to apply their mindfulness skills to the kinds of situations where they usually get stuck – ones that cause them to experience intense feelings of fear, anxiety or panic – so that even in these situations they’re able to take meaningful action to make their lives better and lessen the impact of anxiety on the things that matter to them.
This can take a little bit of time and effort – few things worth doing in life are easy. But, inevitably, the more you do something the better you get at it. I’ve yet to meet someone who got worse the more they practised!
If you struggle with fear and anxiety, mindfulness skills have incredible potential to enable you to live a richer, fuller and more meaningful life.
This happens not when they’re used as an emotional control strategy, but when you use them to make room for your unwanted private experiences and take committed action based on your core values.
1. Meditation: In Depth. (2019, January 02). Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm
2. Benefits of mindfulness. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/benefits-of-mindfulness
3. Wolitzky-Taylor, K. B., Horowitz, J. D., Powers, M. B., & Telch, M. J. (2008). Psychological approaches in the treatment of specific phobias: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 28(6), 1021-1037.
4. Birtwell, K., Williams, K., Marwijk, H. V., Armitage, C. J., & Sheffield, D. (2019). An Exploration of Formal and Informal Mindfulness Practice and Associations with Wellbeing. Mindfulness, 10(1), 89-99.