Does Mindfulness Even Work?
I remember walking into my first therapists office as a teenager. I had been dealing with intense anxiety for quite some time, not knowing exactly what it was and convinced I was just dying. I walked by a cluster of windchimes to get through the front door and was greeted by the potent smell of incense and quiet sounds of what I now recognize as singing bowls. She invited me to sit on the couch across from her and we began the conversation about what brought me there.
After some time, she asked me if I had ever meditated before and I laughed at her.
“Me? Meditate? I can’t get my brain to shut off for one second never mind trying to sit in silence. I don’t do that Zen shit.”
She smiled softly and asked me to close my eyes. “Let’s just give this a try. Tell me what you experience.”
After the 10 seconds that felt like an eternity, I was twitching, uncomfortable, and couldn’t stop focusing on my racing heart. “It’s just making my anxiety worse,” I said, opening my eyes.
She opened her appointment book and asked me when I’d like to come in again. “Until our next appointment, just try this exercise once a day, even just for a moment.”
“That crap doesn’t work. This isn’t going to help me. I need something that is going to help me and now,” I muttered to myself on the drive home.
I never went back.
Comically, ten years later, I opened up Journeys: School for the Soul (and then, Holistic Wellness & Anxiety Relief Center) where one of the primary services I offered incorporated mindfulness and meditation –- something I was convinced would never work. I fully believed that the people who talked about mindfulness and meditation being helpful had a.) never experienced anxiety or any “real” problems, and b.) made it up as some bogus thing to sell to people to make money.
I hear this so often from clients.
“It’s a crock of shit.”
“How can this help?”
“All I can think about is the anxiety I’m feeling or my worries.”
And just like my first therapist did, I smile and laugh softly because I freakin get it. There is nothing more frustrating than wanting something so distressing to stop and being told to sit with it and feel it.
Every fiber in our being tells us to get away from these uncomfortable feelings because that is precisely what our brain is built to do—outrun danger, discomfort, pain, to do whatever it can to keep us safe and alert us to the things we need to get away from. And that includes the invisible threats. The “what if’s” of anxiety become monsters we must outrun and send our body and nervous system into overdrive.
Mindfulness is trying to force our brain to do the very thing it is built not to do—sit, stay, feel. If a serial killer were chasing you down the street, you would want your brain to do what it does when you have anxiety. Shut down your useless organs (GI system) so more energy can flow to your muscles to run faster, quicken your heart rate, shorten your breathing, tunnel your vision so you can focus on what is in front of you. For those of us who have experienced anxiety, we know how inconvenient it is when our body kicks into fight, flight or freeze when the only serial killer chasing us is the worry that we’re going to get fired, or be made fun of, or get broken up with, or not be able to pay the bills or (insert every worry we have ever had here!) So, to sit with it and feel forced to endure it can feel unbearable.
For mindfulness to feel that way is NORMAL.
So, does that mean mindfulness doesn’t work? Or really, how can it if we can’t even tolerate it for 5 seconds?
Mindfulness is not something that comes easily, nor does it come quickly—another thing that this world has conditioned us to believe must happen when we are healing or doing anything at all. It must be easy, and it must be fast, and if it’s not, well then screw it! But do we ever truly heal from things when we take the fast and easy route?
Mindfulness is learned through practice and through ::gulp:: time. But it does work.
When we are anxious, our racing thoughts are full of catastrophic stories and black and white thinking that leave us feeling cornered and doomed. They speed through the mind to the point where we turn all of our attention to them and what we can do to make the anxiety go away. This brings us to a vicious circle that feels like it will never end. We want the anxiety to stop, so we focus on the anxiety, and then because the anxiety is there, we want it to stop, and because it’s not stopping, we focus on it, and round and round we go.
Mindfulness is our reminder to stop. To not just allow the thoughts to run rampant, but to take the time to hear them, so that we can take the short moments where we are being mindful to actually challenge those thoughts.
Day to day life with thoughts is much like being on an unplanned road trip with no idea where we are going – but instead of taking in and experiencing all the scenery, we are flying down the road at 100 mph just to try and get somewhere. When we slow down, look, see, feel, and think consciously rather than letting the thoughts just play without any input, we can actually be a participant in our life. Anxiety, and really any negative thought patterns that come with life or mental health issues, often will make us feel like we are not in control—that our thoughts are the ones steering the ship. Through mindfulness, we get to witness that we are actually the ones in control, even though it doesn’t always feel like it.
Again, it takes time and practice to re-wire what we have been programmed to experience. If we just let our thoughts go and go, never stopping to question it, or challenge it, the anxiousness will continue to build.
As an example, an anxious inner dialogue might sound like this:
“I’m worried that if I try to leave my job that I don’t like, I’m not going to like the new job that I take. And then I’m going to be anxious all over again. I’m never going to be happy. What if the people at my new job suck? Or I suck? Or I look like an idiot because I don’t know what I’m doing? And then I have to look for another job all over again, but what if I don’t find one that pays as much as I’m making now? I’m never going to make as much as I’m making now, and I’m going to have to sell my house because I can’t afford to live here anymore because I set everything up according to the current salary I make! If I don’t leave the current job though, I’m going to be miserable because I hate it here. Oh my god I am stuck here forever. What am I going to do???”
The anxious thoughts build and build into a catastrophic story without any interruption. If we use mindfulness, we can stop right at the first sentence. I might not like the new job that I take. From here we can challenge the anxious thought because we are taking the mindful moment to actually hear it rather than letting it snowball. Perhaps we follow up with a question, “so what if I don’t like the next one?” Or an affirmation, “I can handle any situation that comes to me.” Or simply, “That road is not here to cross right now.”
Mindfulness teaches us to just allow thoughts to be there—without labeling them as bad or good, and without taking action just because they are there. By doing so, we break the cycle of attention on anxiety and just observe the thought. I like to use the visualization of being on a train and moving the thoughts to the outside of the train where I can view it from the window. I pass by it and let it keep moving. I don’t have to carry the thought with me, and I don’t jump out of the train to try and toss it out of the scene which takes way more time and energy.
Taking the above example, rather than continuing the story after “I might not like the new job that I take,” we can drop the pen right there. No judgment. We don’t have to take the sentence as a fact that it will definitely happen. We can just allow it to pass us by as simply a thought—one that many people have had in their lives, but don’t spend time or energy on.
These skills take practice. It is not in our nature to stop and intentionally listen to our thoughts –and it is mostly certainly not part of the purpose of the brain to stop and explore things that terrify us. Because of this we have to make a conscious effort if we want to see change. And it’s allowed to be frustrating! Allow the frustration to be there and continue trying. Eventually you will start to notice changes in how you experience your inner (and outer) world.