We have detailed elsewhere on this site that mindfulness can be an excellent tool for all sorts of mental conditions, including anxiety. But what if you suffer from anxiety, are practicing mindfulness to try and help with it, and yet are not finding it very effective? What can you do to get better results?
There are a number of possible reasons why mindfulness may not work for anxiety:
- Firstly, you may not be practising the mindfulness correctly, or may not be practising it for long enough for it to work.
- Secondly, mindfulness does not always eliminate anxiety as such, but changes how we see it.
- Thirdly, your anxiety may simply be too powerful for mindfulness to handle, and more powerful treatments like bilateral stimulation may be a good alternative to try.
We ran into this interesting article which looks at this same issue of mindfulness not working for anxiety. The writer’s solution here is entirely perceptual, arguing that we shouldn’t expect mindfulness to “work” in the narrow sense of getting rid of anxiety, but more to help us accept things the way they are, for better or worse. This is what he means by it “working”.
This is definitely true in one sense, but the general tone of the piece seemed a bit and pessimistic. We want to partially agree with the tone of the linked article, but also offer some more positive points and qualifiers.
It is also important to point out that meditation is 1) only a management tool for anxiety and not an elimination tool; and 2) there are other options available to deal with anxiety that have to potential to be more powerful. We need not rely on mindfulness alone to deal with anxiety.
In this sense we can hope to use mindfulness and other methods to reduce the ability of anxiety to bother us, to the point where it doesn’t bother us anymore even if it still is there. For many people, this is the same as if it weren’t there, which is what we are all aiming for. Lets look at these points in more detail.
Reasons Why Mindfulness Meditation May Not Work For Anxiety
Here are some of the main reasons why mindfulness meditation may not be effective for dealing with anxiety. In short, it can be a combination of objective reality, but also how we are seeing the anxiety and the role of meditation in dealing with it.
- You may simply have not been meditating long enough for it to have really changed your brain and perception for it to really cope with anxiety. Benefits are usually proportional to the amount of quality practice.
- You may be looking at the issue of mindfulness and anxiety wrong, expecting it to eliminate the anxiety, when in fact it is designed to change the way we see it and weaken our attachment to it. Our expectations need to be realistic.
- Over time, our attachment to it may weaken to the point where subjectively to us, it is the same as if it weren’t there. This is the long term goal of meditation, but takes continual practice over time.
- We may get upset when the anxiety doesn’t go, which fuels the anxiety further. We need to understand the goal and purpose of meditation more subtly.
- For people who are not advanced meditators, the anxiety may simply be too powerful in the moment for mindfulness alone to handle. See the section on bilateral stimulation for an alternative mind calming method.
Another important point to make here as well is that it has now been shown that doing enough mindfulness meditation can in fact change the structure of the brain, to the point where it is indeed more resistant to things like stress and anxiety.
See here for a 2011 study which found this to be true. In this sense, mindfulness can be made to work, if it practiced enough. As little as 11 hours a month (around 20 minutes a day) has been shown to produce positive changes in the brain.
In this sense, people who undertake mindfulness meditation for anxiety or other conditions need to be prepared to practice it regularly and for a long period of time to start seeing more benefits.
It can start to help almost immediately, but benefits are proportional to the amount and longevity of the practice. If their background levels of anxiety are high, they also need to consider supplementing the meditation with other measures. We will cover these further below.
Make Sure You Are Meditating Correctly For Anxiety
See this videos for some good tips for meditating correctly for anxiety from an expert:
One of the first things to do if meditation is not helping with anxiety is to a) make sure you are practicing it correctly; and b) make sure you have realistic expectations about what mindfulness can do with regards to anxiety.
Here is a summary of the points from the above video, plus some of our own points:
- For anxious people, sitting and lying meditations are preferable to walking mediation. Lying meditation is considered the best.
- Meditation does not “get rid” of anxiety in the first instance (it may do with prolonged practice over time). What it does do is change the way you see and weaken your attachment to it. The anxiety is merely observed and you don’t get so upset about it.
- If you have the time and resources, enrol on an intensive meditation course in a retreat, where you can really practice in a safe, supportive environment and gain real traction with the meditation.
- Also make sure you understand the difference between Samantha (calmness) meditation and Vipassana (insight) meditation. See our article on this.
- Try also some vigorous exercise before meditating to see if this calms the mind down.
- Combine meditation with a form of depth psychoptherapy or psychoanalysis which is aimed at the intentional removal of anxiety from the mind (not just managing anxiety). EMDR and classical psychoanalysis are two options here.
- If you have simply not been meditating long enough for it to really help with strong anxiety, see the section below on bilateral stimulation as a more powerful immediate treatment.
Meditation requires consistent practice to deliver the best results, and may sometimes need supplementing with other self care methods
Mindfulness Can Benefit Anyone Who Uses It
The article on mindfulness and anxiety we mentioned does raise some good points. However, the advice given does fall on the pessimistic side. The writer claims they have been meditating for two decades.
The best that can be hoped according to his perspective is to use mindfulness to accept life for the misery it is. He still has strong anxiety and other negative emotions; it is just the mindfulness allows him to better accept it.
If this is the case after two decades, then there are a couple of further options to consider: a) Going on an intensive meditation course as suggested above; b) exploring depth psychotherapies and psychoanalysis as a way of supplementing the mindfulness, and c) nothing, if the person if the mindfulness has got the person to a place where they are happy with the way things are, however imperfect. That is the perspective he seems to be coming from.
Part of the problem here we suggest is in seeing mindfulness as a new “god”, the one and only solution to any and every problem we encounter in our inner and outer lives, including anxiety. Mindfulness is a useful tool for managing and weakening our attachment to negative emotions, but it isn’t the only one available.
Methods such as EMDR and psychoanalysis can eliminate anxiety when done properly; why not use these as well to reduce the overall level of anxiety, making it easier for the mindfulness to handle?
The issue here really boils down to semantics, and how one chooses to see things. It is true that in the short term, mindfulness does not “work”, if by “work” you mean get rid of anxiety completely. It merely changes our relationship to it, and over time weakens our attachment to it.
In broader terms, there is no doubt that mindfulness practice can offer significant life benefits to pretty much anyone who undertakes it, and does so properly and consistently.
When you start meditating, your quality of life is almost always better than if you hadn’t done it. In this sense, mindfulness always works.
Bilateral Stimulation as a More Powerful Way to Treat Anxiety
However, all this said, it is also true that mindfulness meditation is by no means the only method to treat anxiety, nor is it the most powerful and fast acting method. The mantle for this belongs to a treatment called bilateral stimulation, a method of treating anxiety which is often used in a form of therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR.
If you are experiencing very strong anxiety and you find meditation isn’t really calming it, or you are too restless and agitated to even meditate, then using this method can provide a much more powerful and fast acting relief from strong internal states of anxiety and subjective distress.
There are several leading hypotheses as to why this is the case, but one of the most common sense ways of looking at bilateral stimulation is that is provides the mind/brain with a distraction in terms of some kind of outer stimulus, which takes the focus off purely the internal distress, thus “blurring” it or lowering it’s intensity for the person.
See our article on why EMDR is so effective for more details on this and other theories and explanations as to why it works so well.
For this reason, EMDR, the form of therapy which most often uses this method, is sometimes called “mindfulness on steroids“, in that it appears to do much the same thing as mindfulness, but in a more powerful and rapid way. Patients often report a significant calming of internal distress within minutes of bilateral stimulation based treatment being administered.
Here are the general steps to treat anxiety, racing mind/thoughts, and fight-flight response using self administered bilateral stimulation:
- When you are experiencing anxiety or any other state of intense physiological arousal, load up one of the bilateral stimulation videos below onto full screen.
- The aim here is simply to focus on your internal experience of anxiety or distress, whilst also simultaneously focusing on the dot moving across the screen.
- It can also help to combine visual and audio bilateral stimulation together for an even more powerful effect. Try listening to an audio BLS recording such as the bilateral nature sounds available cheaply on this page, through a set of headphones.
- It is this dual focus of attention – paying attention to both your inner and outer experience at the same time – that has proven very powerful in reducing intense states of physiological arousal such as anxiety and fight-flight response.
- Also pay attention to any other thoughts, feelings and memories which come up as you are self administering the bilateral stimulation.
- Keep watching through the video right to the end. Repeat several times if you want. Make sure you are always maintaining a dual focus of attention, focusing on both the inner and outer experience, for it to be effective.
- See our article on self administering EMDR for more on this process.
Here is an example of a video which can be used to self adminster bilateral stimulation:
If you prefer audio, see here for an MP3 recording of bilateral stimulation to listen to with headphones.
When done properly, this form of treatment can be very powerful in reducing anxiety and other states of internal distress, in a much more rapid and noticeable way that mindfulness, which tends to have a more gradual and subtle effect in how anxiety is viewed and seen. It appears bilateral stimulation can root out anxiety completely when done properly. It is not just a management tool.
The fact it can be quite easily self administered is also very beneficial, and makes it very accessible to anyone who wants to try it. It is worth seriously exploring if you suffer from anxiety and find mindfulness is not working to resolve it in a way that is effective enough for you.