How to Meditate When Anxious

Originally posted as “How to Meditate when you’re anxious” at Mindful.org

by Steve Hickman

When you’re feeling anxious and jittery, try an alternative to seated meditation.

Q: When I’m freaking out about something, I find it impossible to meditate. I do have a history of panic attacks. Any suggestions?

We’re often susceptible to inadvertently engaging in what I like to call Strategic Meditation. That is, because we sometimes attain a degree of calmness when we practice, we begin to think that we should meditate in order to change how we feel. Such an approach is particularly ineffective and fraught with danger when we feel highly distressed, panicked, or depressed.

At such times, we’re not really meditating. If mindfulness meditation is the allowing or accepting of all that is arising in our awareness and holding it with kindness and patience and willingness, then using Strategic Meditation to calm down or stop a wave of sadness represents resistance to our feelings, not acceptance. We are adopting a stance of judging the feeling as bad or undesirable or problematic and trying earnestly to make it stop or go away. The problem is that trying to make yourself stop feeling or thinking about something only tends to make the problem worse. What you resist, persists.

The problem is that trying to make yourself stop feeling or thinking about something only tends to make the problem worse. What you resist, persists.

So then should you stop practicing mindfulness when you’re freaking out? No. But you may want to try a slightly different approach. Instead of sitting very still when your body is feeling agitated and fearful, consider walking mindfully or doing yoga with the intention of bringing awareness to your experience. That may just indulge your agitation enough to let you find a rhythm in the tumult. Let go of trying to make the anxiety go away and instead see if, for a time, you can simply befriend it and get to know it a bit. Perhaps by letting go of the resistance to freaking out, you will find that you actually take the wind out of its sails.

Letting go of needing anything to be any different in this moment is the key to moving mindfully through difficult situations. It isn’t easy to do, but when you’re practicing regularly, this stance of letting go becomes more accessible and easier to embrace. Regularly cultivating mindfulness when we aren’t freaking out or anxious will help us when we are freaked out. If our inner “volume” is already turned down, these difficult situations don’t provoke us in the same way.

This article appeared in the June 2017 issue of Mindful magazine.