When Mindfulness Doesn't Calm Anxiety
Mindfulness is an amazing tool for all types of anxiety. Except when it isn't. Wait. What? Mindfulness is touted, rightly so, for its ability to lower blood pressure, reduce the amount of stress hormones in the blood, relax tense muscles, quiet racing thoughts, and soothe roiling emotions. Experts from all disciplines, from the sciences to the spiritual, offer solid evidence of the ability of mindfulness to decrease anxiety. Yet there are times when it does more harm than good. What do we do then?
Without delving too deeply, think for a moment about an anxiety you deal with. For me, this might be an intense fear of being judged negatively by others. I remember experiencing high anxiety before an important meeting. I “knew” that I would do something stupid, and I imagined all of the cascading consequences. I went into anxiety attack mode.
Why Mindfulness sometimes doesn't Calm Anxiety
In theory, mindfulness would have been very helpful in that situation. And sometimes it is very helpful. I’m usually a fan. That time, however, it didn't work so well. As I tried to reign in my thoughts and focus on the present moment, I made things worse because I got caught in a loop. Part of mindfulness involves focusing on the present, but every time I brought my thoughts to the moment, I remembered that I was at work and less than fifteen minutes away from the dreaded meeting. So my panic would increase. So I’d be mindful of the present, which was at work, which increased anxiety, and on and on the cycle went.
With anxiety, this is fairly common. It’s especially problematic during those panic attacks that are triggered by a present stressor. It’s also problematic during flashbacks because, when those are occurring, one’s mind is actually present in the memory, so the memory is the present. Focusing on that particular present will only worsen the flashback and co-occurring anxiety.
If mindfulness doesn’t work, what then? Happily, mindfulness can still be utilized and all of its benefits reaped. There are just some little modifications to make.
- Focus on your breath – you want to calm it down and bring it under control
- Adopt a non-judgmental attitude about what’s going on in the moment – don’t curse what’s happening
- Acknowledge all of the anxiety (the physical, the emotional, the intellectual) – then gently turn your attention elsewhere
The Minor Change to Mindfulness that Helps Anxiety
- Focusing on the present sometimes just doesn't work
- Intentionally focus your thoughts, then, on something else
- Visualization is very powerful; ahead of time, choose an image that brings you peace
- Instead of bringing your thoughts to the present, gently bring to mind your image and calmly focus on that to reduce your anxiety
To calm any type of anxiety, even a panic attack or a flashback, practice mindfulness, but modify it to fit your needs. Replace the focus on the present moment with a focus on an image that brings you peace. What brings you peace?
Peterson, T. (2014, April 30). When Mindfulness Doesn't Calm Anxiety, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, December 5 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2014/05/when-mindfulness-doesnt-calm-anxiety
Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS
Thanks for the article. Usually mindfulness works for me. If I have general anxiety, mindfulness relieves the symptoms straight away. I have been using it for about 3 years and have also been doing yin yoga for the past year. Recently my anxiety got so bad (due to work related stress) it began presenting as flu like symptoms and then just an all-over horrible, hard to explain feeling that I couldn’t shake as per usual. I tried upping physical activity and using other tools in my toolbox but this still had no impact. The horrible feeling would last for days and eventually I had to resort to medication again which worked in conjunction with mindfulness as well as cutting down a work day and changing my role at work, thanks to my boss. I might not always have the luxury to change my role at work in the future though, especially if we have a family. Are you able to explain what was happening and what you would suggest in the future?
Stress has a way of throwing everyone and everything for a loop. As you well know, it affects physical health and emotional health. Sometimes, anxiety becomes "immune" to our coping skills, tools, and strategies -- even when these things are usually highly effective, like the things you were doing. Do you have other strategies in place? If you don't have a lot, it could be helpful to brainstorm as many things as possible that you could do to reduce anxiety when things like exercise and yoga stop working. They'll start working again. You just might need a variety of approaches so your anxiety never becomes immune to any of your strategies. Think of a wide variety of activities, even things you normally wouldn't do (maybe learning to knit, learning a new way of exercising, etc.) Your brain and body will respond differently to something new. Brainstorm as many things as you can, and keep them in a notebook for easy reference. Also, maybe talk with your boss about what you could do if this happens again. Knowing that there's a realistic plan in place can help reduce anxiety.
Know that while this is a terrible experience, it's a normal one and part of anxiety. There's nothing wrong with you or your strategies. You have the strength and determination to deal positively with these flares -- it's obvious from the fact that you've handled your recent surge really well. You've got this!
Hi Tanya, thanks for the great article. I must say though, I was looking for something more when I read the title. Its not your fault, I can't shake the idea that there must be a way to rewire the brain to completely heal ptsd or cptsd instead of just managing triggers or anxiety/panick attacks. What I have discovered so fat is that most of the treatments will calm symptoms; medication, relaxation, meditation, therapy... But, if the cause is not adressed, they will intensify. They can be caused by an abusive family for example, that you have not identify yet what exactly is an agression to you. But more importantly than identifying the cause, Im pretty sure there must be something we can do to literally reset he brain to a stage where the anxiety and panick is not even trigered. I ave tried hypnosis but not long enough to see if its the solution, but it does not look like its enough. Any visionary thoughts or creative input on this? Thanks a lot for your works and niceness...
You raise excellent points. Researchers are trying to discover exactly what you mentioned -- a cure, a way to reset the brain. After all, if so much of anxiety is brain-based, it goes to reason that we can affect change in the brain to cure anxiety, PTSD, and more. It reminds me of that much-desired but elusive fountain of youth. Of course a brain-based cure of anxiety is more logical than a fountain of youth. So far, no cure has been found, but there are proven strategies to minimize anxiety and live well in spite of it. Maybe one of the reasons a cure hasn't been discovered is that anxiety is a natural part of our existence, and it can be positive. Maybe we don't need to eliminate it. Instead, maybe turning our attention to ourselves and the quality life we want is better than focusing on a cure (because then we're focusing on anxiety). Just food for thought! This doesn't mean that researchers should stop searching for a way to reset the brain. Interestingly, I've been reading on mindfulness recently. Researchers are finding that it actually changes the brain. It increases our gray matter throughout the brain, including structures that are involved in anxiety, such as the hippocampus. So maybe we are getting closer to a brain-based cure!
THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH! I've been a mindfulness practitioner since 2008 and it's been transformational in my life. Except when it hasn't. It's helped me enormously with performance anxiety (I'm a musician), it's helped me enormously with things that I can't do anything about that are outside of me, stress, social anxiety and with mild depressions.
However, there is one type of anxiety that I can't find it work for. The one you describe. Where the anxiety IS the present, for example, when I have a situation like the following. I have to make a decision about something I care deeply about which I have no control over and which may have dire consequences. My stomach is a writhing metallic knot of pain. For example, not knowing what course to take because someone hasn't responded to me and I need to make a decision. This happens surprisingly often!
I'm going to be trying some of your tips. Thank you SO much for this.
Thank YOU for your feedback. I hope these tips do help you and will fit right into your current mindfulness practice that already is successful. Except when it isn't. :) When something doesn't work, there's always something else that does. I wish you very well in both reducing anxiety and in your music career.
"When mindfulness doesn't work, mindfulness works?" You have got to be kidding me.
If that quote appeared in the article, I would definitely agree that it doesn't make much sense at all. Sometimes, true mindfulness, which includes a focus on the present moment, doesn't work. If someone's anxiety is rooted in the present moment or in a flashback that the brain experiences as the present moment, focusing on the present doesn't work at all. However, other components of mindfulness, such as deep breathing, stillness, focusing on something to quiet the mind, do still work. The key is in modifying the aspect of mindfulness that focuses on the present. Instead, choose a peaceful, calming image, and be mindful of that. This is an important clarification. Thanks for your comment!
I have never found any comfort, in any treatment. I had cbt, and a whole host of other treatments, all as useless as each other! So why dont these treatments work? Simply because, there are no hooks in any of them, that is powerful enough to help overcome anxiety! And believes me I have tried everything.
Is' ot it interesting, that when thay dont work, the doctor always blames you for it not working! So I go days and days, without sleep, have strong vibrations that send shock waves over my body, I am in fear, day and night, and have around 70 symptoms, plus high bp, and a problem, with my heart beating wrongly (wwhich I am taking tabs for)all brought on by anxiety. So often, I wish I was never born. Better then having this rubbish.
I'm so sorry to hear about your frustrations. Two important things: It's very good that you were born, even though anxiety is intense and blocks out any good stuff; and no matter what people say, it's not your fault when treatments don't work. Anxiety is insidious and can be difficult to get rid of -- trust me, I know. Have you tried (maybe you have) trying to identify one source of your anxiety? Anxiety feels huge and all-encompassing, so sometimes when you isolate one source, you can work on improving that part of your anxiety. That can be helpful in at least reducing your anxiety piece by piece. That is just an idea--something that has worked for me to alleviate some of the intensity. I wish you the best of luck in reducing anxiety and easing some of its awful symptoms.
"Adopt a non-judgmental attitude about what's going on--don't curse the moment."
Um, what if someone is beating or raping you at this moment?
A situation such as abuse, rape, or any other such trauma is not at all the same type of anxiety as general life anxiety. It goes without saying that a coping skill in one situation doesn't automatically apply to every situation.
Mindfulness, DBT, CBT, ACT, etc does not work for me. It does nothing but increase my anxiety level not decrease. If I'm full blown upset, I'm not able to calm down using any of that. I'm too far gone. I know it helps some but does nothing.
You raise a very good point. There are so many approaches to managing/diminishing anxiety, and they all work differently for different people. I think that's why so many therapeutic approaches have been developed (and are still being developed). People notice that a proven technique is not effective for them or for those they are helping, and they try to figure out what will work instead. But it's a very tricky process because we're all so different. I, too, have had to try many things. Adding to the frustration is that something, such as mindfulness, will work in some instances but not in others. That's why it's good to start to develop a toolbox of multiple strategies. Don't worry about finding tons of strategies all at once because that alone will exacerbate anxiety. Experiment to find just one thing that works, even just a little, and then use it and eventually build on it. Looking at your list, I notice that these all involve mostly thinking and emotions. Have you tried physical activity on a regular basis? Or things that involve creating with your hands such as painting or working with clay (you don't have to be a fantastic artist -- the point isn't to create museum pieces but to have a physical outlet for your anxious energy)? Whatever you try, focus just on you. Don't beat yourself up because these techniques work for some people but not you. There's nothing wrong with you. Just concentrate on yourself. It's okay, and it will help.
Thanks for the response. I appreciate you saying there is nothing wrong with me if they don't work because that is sure how it feels when your therapist wants you to try x and it does nothing. It is like I'm wrong or bad. I am unable to do much physical activity at this point due to medical issues. I am an abstract artist, writer and photographer. However if I'm off the charts I can't calm down enough to even do those. The one thing that I used to do was drive. I'd just take off and eventually come back to awareness but now I can't even do that. I have a lot of issues right now. I keep trying different things but it is so frustrating.
Hello again, Cee,
I meant it when I wrote that there is nothing wrong with you. You're experiencing difficulties, but that doesn't make you "wrong" or "bad" in any way. I hear you that the process of trying to find things that work to reduce anxiety is very frustrating. And it's made worse when things that you used to do and love no longer work. Don't beat yourself up for these things! Find those things about yourself that you can do and that you do enjoy and concentrate on those positive things. And be patient and gentle with yourself! You deserve it.
nice article, except for the flashback thing, i think reminding yourself to be present is very hepful during a flashback, it was for one of my clients with PTSD, a flashback is not the present, is the past pretending to be the present.
Thank you for your insight. I am in complete agreement that a flashback is not the present. Sometimes when I've worked with people with PTSD, especially in the early stages of treatment, a flashback feels so much like the present that when they try to be mindful of the "real" present, they instead remain in the flashback. When this is the case (and it isn't always the case), I have found that when in the throes of a flashback, someone can visualize something completely different, then outside of the flashback they process the truth that a flashback is not the present. That helps along the healing journey. I agree with your approach of helping people separate the true present from the past.
i've tried the things you have suggested and for me it doesn't work a lot of time because the anxiety attack is so bad.i'll be having one and say to myself breathe girl breathe but the attack will be so bad i can't concentrate on anything but the thing that caused the attack. or i'll get worse anxiety over the fact that i'm having an anxiety attack, if that makes sense at all.
Of course that makes perfect sense. One of the most frustrating things about anxiety/panic attacks is that they can make themselves worse because people are anxious about the very fact that they're having an anxiety attack. It's frustrating when you try to find something that works but it doesn't. That's common. Everyone is different, so different things work for different people. When you're not in the midst of an anxiety attack, it can be helpful to brainstorm and develop a list of what might be effective in calming you down. What things work for you personally regardless of whether or not they work for others? Experiment with different things, and give yourself permission to cross things off your list that don't work for you.
I love this site, so many great anxiety articles.Thanks a lot!
I'm so glad that you are enjoying HealthyPlace's Anxiety-Schmanxiety blog and finding a lot of great anxiety articles! I just checked out the link you provided, and you have great information to offer. It's wonderful to have so much information out there to help people deal with and overcome anxiety. I'm sorry I can't share your link publicly due to policy. I do think that it's a useful site in getting over anxiety.