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February 13, 2017       
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When Anxiety is Caused by Mindfulness Practice

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
walking a meditation labyrinth
Some people need to keep moving, thinking, even worrying to prevent awareness of certain thoughts, emotions, or images buried in their subconscious. When they slow down, when they relax, they are less on guard which gives these thoughts or images purchase in their minds.

And it's not always the initial thoughts or images but what they represent and the meaning the person attributes to them. For instance, a person who suffered horrific childhood abuse may judge her or himself harshly and even engage in self-blame. So the avoidance is of their self-criticism and the ongoing injury to their self-concept.

Or, for others it may be the fear of becoming lost in the emotion, feeling overwhelmed and unable to tolerate the intensity of the negative emotions. For some, even as bad as worrying about future catastrophe may feel, it's often better than re-experiencing the painful past.

As a result, some people have an adverse reaction to mindfulness practice or deep relaxation because they have let down their self-protection from these thoughts, feelings, and images. Technically, saying that anxiety can be caused by mindfulness is a misnomer. Rather, the anxiety is caused by the underlying issues that may come to the forefront when practicing mindfulness.

When people feel anxiety while practicing mindfulness they usually quit the practice. Yet, mindfulness can still be useful—in fact, for such people it can be a very helpful method to aid in dealing with the underlying issues that are coming to the forefront. However, they may need some guidance.

How can a person reduce anxiety elicited by mindfulness?

1) Experience. Much of the time uncontrolled anxiety caused by mindfulness is due to inexperience. When people first practice mindfulness they may not fully understand the concept which may open them up to awareness too quickly. If a person has trauma in their background it is best to practice mindfulness under the watchful eye of an experienced teacher.

2) Short practices. Start with very short sessions and gradually increase the time. The length of time should be just below the tolerance level so that anxiety isn't induced by the mindfulness and cause greater avoidance. So, for some people this may mean initial practice of a few minutes or even a few seconds.

3) Focus. Initially practice mindfulness with something that provides focus. This can be an object or an activity that provides enough stimulation to prevent the underlying issues from surfacing. For instance, mindfulness can be practiced while having a conversation with someone or while gardening or while looking at a painting. The activities that provide enough focus may vary from person to person.

Once a person has gradually increased their ability to tolerate mindfulness, they may then be able to learn how to use it to develop tolerance of uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and images.



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