What if Mindfulness Makes You Feel Worse?

The benefits of mindfulness practices have been established in the eastern hemisphere for around 2500 years. Over the past 25 years a great deal of research has been done in this area and has shown quite clearly that practices focusing upon development of awareness are effective in reducing stress and enhancing quality of life. As a result, many North Americans have become curious, spurring TV shows, magazines, books, podcasts and an entire industry. Many people have decided to learn how to use mindfulness in their daily lives. The introductory meditation practices involved in many Mindfulness programs include the body scan in which individuals are instructed to focus their attention on parts of their body from the soles of the feet all the way up to the top of the head. This practice encourages examining and being curious about sensations in the body and can be a valuable tool to calm the mind, learn how to shift, narrow, and expand attention and to increase the awareness of body cues. The other common practice is awareness of breath in which an individual is instructed to place their attention on the sensation of their breath in various parts of the body. When participants struggle with these meditations they are often encouraged to return to the breath, to respond with kindness and compassion to the wandering mind and to continue to visit the breath or the body over and over. Sometimes, this is an entirely appropriate instruction because as a society North Americans have a long history of difficulty being still without distraction. The struggle with focus on the breath of the body can be viewed as an opportunity to develop skill and discipline.

Unfortunately, sometimes focusing on the breath and the body can make matters worse. For some people who have a history of anxiety, depression or trauma paying attention to the breath intently or to particular body parts can increase symptoms, trigger panic or open the door to very unpleasant memories or thoughts. Thanks to the work of Willoughby Britton, Ph.D., Jared Lindahl, Ph.D. and David Treleaven, Ph.D., Mindfulness-Based therapists can now offer people who struggle with some of the practices a toolbox, so to speak, to help them experience the benefits of Mindfulness in a way that makes sense for them. One of those tools is called the Resource and Resilience Practice. I had the good fortune of being lead through one of these practices by Dr. Treleaven at a conference on Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness.

The Resource and Resilience Practice provides alternatives to focus upon and find a place to rest our attention before resuming focus on the breath or body sensation. This practice can be used by anyone on its own to promote a sense of balance or grounding. It can also be used inside of your other meditation practices if you are finding strong emotions arising, feeling anxious or panicked or taken away by upsetting thoughts. Several focal points have been identified as helpful anchors of attention when the breath or the body sensations are difficult to attend to. They are the feet, the hands, the breath at the nostrils, the sensation of touch, an object such as a piece of material, favourite clothing or comfort item and images of places, people, pets or things that foster a sense of belonging and the ability to ‘just be’ without any pressures.

This practice has become a personal favorite. If you are curious and would like try a version of the Resource and Resilience Practice you can find it at sitforaminute.ca under the Guided Mediations on the top toolbar. Being able to engage in a beneficial way with Mindfulness Based practices depends on a multitude of factors. If you have had a difficult experience in your attempts, see if it’s possible to cut yourself some slack, perhaps take a break for a bit and if you are really drawn to this approach it might be helpful to seek out a mental health professional with Mindfulness training to find a way to use mindfulness in your life.

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