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Why do some people become anxious when they first learn to meditate?

Sheri Van Dijk
Psychiatry

Working with people with mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, I occasionally have clients who become more anxious when they first begin to practice mindfulness meditation. Often people who already have anxiety find their anxiety increases specifically with breathing exercises - if this happens, I encourage people to continue practicing, and really work on bringing awareness and acceptance to their anxiety. Sometimes, however, if they can't tolerate this, I'll suggest that they do something other than the breathing until they become more used to mindfulness, and then they can come back to the breathing exercises later.

Recently, I had a client in a mindfulness group who was dealing with a lot of anxiety and found that her anxiety increased when she began practicing. I gave her my usual reassurance that mindfulness does take time to get used to, and that the anxiety usually decreases over time and once she becomes more accustomed to practice. Soon after, she reported having "an epiphany", that she is just so unused to being in the present moment that this was what was making her anxious. This isn't uncommon either - especially for people with anxiety disorders, who frequently live in the future rather than the present, they're not used to looking at what's happening in this moment, never mind trying to bring acceptance to it! Often what we find in the present is scary, and that's one reason we've been living in the past or the future. Once you get used to this idea, however, and become more effective at practicing mindfulness, you will find that it is just a healthier, happier way of living your life. So as best as you can, tolerate the anxiety if it's there, and be assured that it will dissipate; it just takes some effort, which in the long-run, is well worth it!

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.