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When Mindfulness Doesn't Work

COVID-19 has brought with it the need to be more creative in the way we look after our mental health. Being in lockdown can bring many challenges for people that affects their well-being: they may have been laid-off, not able to interact with people, helping to manage a household, in a place where they are vulnerable and much more. The amount of people who have taken up exercise, started learning new skills and practising mindfulness has (presumably) skyrocketed. Today however, we’re only going to talk about one: mindfulness and meditation.

Mindfulness is the practice of being present, focusing on our sensations, being fully aware of ourselves in that moment and not being overly reactive to the things that may be going on around us. Meditation is where you set time aside to give attention to one thing, a branch of mindfulness, or perhaps mindfulness is a branch of meditation - surprisingly there is a lot of debate around the differences between them. Essentially, both include the act of focusing on one's senses and living within the present, whether it’s to improve mental health, practise religion or achieve some other goal.

There’s no doubt that mindfulness has its benefits. For me personally, practising mindfulness and meditation has made me more relaxed, has helped me sleep better and has equipped me with a bunch of tools to manage my mental health. In general, mindfulness has been known to help us notice signs of anxiety and stress earlier, be useful when not actively practising it, it could boost our compassion and even test scores!

Even though it’s useful for me, I was 21 when I found out that it doesn’t work for everyone (via this blog from Living Beyond the Borderline), and in fact people can have severe negative experiences with it.

With mindfulness and meditation being mental health buzzwords I didn’t expect this at first, of course it makes sense that it’s not the best method for everyone, but for it to be in fact really harmful to some people is shocking. There have been numerous studies on the consequences of mindfulness meditation practices (the NHS even feature one here) but I think I will retell some of the stories that have emerged over the years.

The first is from Lorna (aka Living Beyond the Borderline) who talked about in her blog, that I linked above, that when she tried mindfulness for the first time it caused a panic attack that she felt the need to stifle, saying: "Not wanting to make a scene I sat through it, feeling as if my heart was beating out of my chest, internally screaming for it to end."

She is not alone. This Guardian article documents the individual experiences of some of those who have practised mindfulness: from having to spend 3 months in a psychiatric unit after a retreat as it brought up trauma to feeling physically numb and having meltdowns.

So in lieu of all of the research and personal stories we've looked at, it is so important that we lift this perception to reveal that meditation and mindfulness can actually be bad for some people. That it can conjure up panic attacks, dissociative episodes and past trauma. Otherwise, since it's such an ingrained well-being method in our society, and now that COVID-19 is putting a strain on our collective well-being, the rising popularity of it could cause an increase in people having really negative side effects.

How do we do we lift this perception?

We need to ensure that people are aware of the risks that mindfulness presents before they go into it so that they can adequately make a judgement call on whether it is okay for them. It should be mandatory that these risks are talked about and promoted alongside the health benefits of meditation retreats, apps and other resources.

We need to ensure that it isn't treated as a generalised therapy for mental health problems but rather a tool amongst a wider set of measures to individually tackle that person's issues. Counsellors should make patients aware that there could be negative side-effects of listening to guided meditations and to immediately stop practising it if it's distressing or uncomfortable in any way. Organisations such as workplaces and schools need to focus on providing adequate support systems for employees and students rather than generalised meditation subscriptions or classes.

Mindfulness and meditation don’t work for everybody. It’s unfair to treat them both like a one-size-fits-all guide to improving mental well-being, especially in times like these, when we are perhaps particularly vulnerable. Instead we should focus on making informed decisions about our mental well-being: seeking help if we need it, experimenting with a variety of different things and looking after one another.

If you're wondering whether mindfulness may work for you Mind have put together a fantastic guide of questions you should ask yourself before jumping straight into it. You can find it here.



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