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Background: I have been trying mindfulness/meditation but I don't understand how to do it. For example, I tried sitting thinking and focusing on my breath, but thoughts kept intruding, so I just observed them, without trying to suppress them. Soon, one thought led to another, I felt myself getting angrier and more depressed. By the end of my meditating session, i felt terrible, anxious and agitated.

General Question:

  • Does meditation and mindfulness cause many people to get anxious and angry?
  • Why might meditation and mindfulness lead to anxiety and anger?
  • Is a positive response to meditation related more to the method or the person?
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to CogSci. We can't answer self-help questions or questions about individual behavior for ethical and theoretical reasons, but you might try restating your question in terms of a general request for scientifically valid mindfulness programs aimed at anxiety-reduction and depression management. I think it is a bit hard for someone else to edit this way, since it would require a total reconstruction of the question. $\endgroup$ – Christian Hummeluhr May 14 '15 at 7:34
  • $\begingroup$ "For example, I tried sitting thinking and focusing on my breath, but thoughts kept intruding, so I just observed them, without trying to suppress them". => You mixed two different meditation styles. Try either to oberserve your thoughts without judging them (open monitoring approach) or focus ONLY on your breath. (Focused attention approach) $\endgroup$ – CuriousIndeed May 14 '15 at 9:08
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps the health or the Buddhist stack exchange might be able to help? I'm thinking they might have better meditation tips $\endgroup$ – queenslug May 14 '15 at 9:17
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    $\begingroup$ @anon As Christian pointed out, we don't answer self-help questions that apply to one person's specific circumstances on this site. I gave your question an edit to try to frame it as a general question that might be suitable to the site and still be relevant to you. But others may feel that it is not general enough. $\endgroup$ – Jeromy Anglim May 14 '15 at 9:27
  • $\begingroup$ @queenslug the Buddhist meditation is different from the mindfulness meditation practiced for therapeutic purposes. $\endgroup$ – rumtscho May 14 '15 at 10:24
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I have found several studies which support the general consensus that mediation helps to ease anxiety.

  • Bahrke, M. S., & Morgan, W. P. (1978). Anxiety reduction following exercise and meditation. Cognitive therapy and research, 2(4), 323-333.
  • Krisanaprakornkit, T., Sriraj, W., Piyavhatkul, N., & Laopaiboon, M. (2006). Meditation therapy for anxiety disorders. The Cochrane Library.
  • Tacón, A. M., McComb, J., Caldera, Y., & Randolph, P. (2003). Mindfulness meditation, anxiety reduction, and heart disease: a pilot study. Family & community health, 26(1), 25-33.
  • Lee, S. H., Ahn, S. C., Lee, Y. J., Choi, T. K., Yook, K. H., & Suh, S. Y. (2007). Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress management program as an adjunct to pharmacotherapy in patients with anxiety disorder. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 62(2), 189-195.

However, one study by Heide and Borkovec describes the phenomena of relaxation induced anxiety (RIA):

While procedures such as progressive relaxation, biofeedback and meditation can often be effective in reducing subjective anxiety and physiological hyperactivity, recent evidence indicates that these same procedures apparently can initiate or exacerbate anxiety in certain individuals (Heide and Borkovec, 1983).

They suggest that this may be because

Somatic, affective and cognitive states arising during relaxation are perceived as threatening, perhaps due to the loss of control which they represent. Loss of control, in turn is avoided as either a perceived threat to coping and survival or perhaps more commonly as a threat to social acceptance (e.g. the fear of emerging inner conflicts and emotions, and the expression of which may be linked to anticipated social rejection). To guard against such loss of control, individuals may adopt strategies to cope with the environment and control anxiety; such strategies frequently maintain tension and may be antithetical to relaxation.

Based on this study, one would assume the effect of meditation is based on the individuals response to it, rather than the efficacy of the meditation techniques

Reference: Heide, F. J., & Borkovec, T. D. (1984). Relaxation-induced anxiety: Mechanisms and theoretical implications. Behaviour research and therapy, 22(1), 1-12.

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It is best to learn meditation/mindfulness by attending an ongoing class – for example, the MBSR-8 week course. That way, these types of issues are resolved as soon as they arise.

Breath meditation is a hard meditation for a person to learn at the beginning. Therefore, I suggest first doing Loving-Kindness Meditation [reference: Zeng, Xianglong et al.(2015).“The Effect of Loving-Kindness Meditation on Positive Emotions: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Frontiers in Psychology 6:1693.]. If you take a look at some of the individual studies listed in this review, you will be able to understand how this meditation is carried out – basically, it is a method of extending compassion towards yourself and all others.

Also, another strategy (for a person who has a hard time meditating) is to do physical yoga, where one attempts to focus attention on the movements without drifting into thoughts. Afterwards, one can gradually train the mind on mindfulness – such as mindfulness of body sensations (before progressing into mindfulness of the breath).

Training the mind has been compared to taming a wild animal – so, one would expect it to drift a LOT – however, each time it drifts, one can bring it back, but this needs to be done with a lot of self-compassion and with “gentleness and kindness” – this is how one makes progress in the practice.

Simply setting aside time and practising itself is considered a positive thing and noticing that the mind has drifted when it has drifted is also a positive thing. So, congratulate yourself for trying, and not for achieving! If you focus on 'trying,''achieving' will come gradually...

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TL; DR One way to see mindfulness meditation as a high-intensity exercise session of experiencing failure and not "freaking out" about it (e.g. being apprehensive of failing, or criticizing yourself for having failed, or being angry at yourself for not being able to simply achieve something which seems easy on the surface, or being anxious of never being able to do it right, or being frustrated about it not being as easy as you'd like it to be). If you are experiencing frustration, anger and anxiety, it can be two things: you are not yet good enough at it (it's very tough to learn if freaking out is your usual reaction to failure - and it probably is, if you think you need mindfulness meditation), or you are not even aware of the above and therefore not doing it right - that is, you are not doing anything about changing the way you relate to your goals and the way you react to failing to achieve them.


One of the major effects of meditation when used for relieving stress and anxiety is to get you out of a kind of a frustration treadmill. Frustration is the emotion which arises when a person is prevented from achieving a goal he deems important, and can be similar to/occur together with anger and anxiety.

The way mindfulness meditation tries to counteract this is to put you in a frame of mind where you have no expectations. When you are not pursuing a particular goal, you cannot be frustrated by not achieving it, and so frustration does not arise. This reduces negative emotions, and you can start evaluating the thoughts that occur during meditation in a more rational way. Once you learn that, you will have a tool to defuse emotional outbursts which occur in your daily life, outside of meditation, by slipping into that mode.

But there are a few important points which some of the briefer meditation tutorials out there don't explain. First of all, you really have to stop having expectations during the meditation. Not of yourself, not of the meditation, not of anything. In a successful meditation, you observe what is happening, without getting into a "this is what is happening, and it is different from what I want to be happening, dang this isn't working" chain of thoughts.

The second thing the short manuals don't tell you, is that meditation is hard. It is very, very difficult to achieve the ideal situation described in the manuals: perfect focus on one thing (or even nothing) without any distraction. As a beginner, you will not be able to achieve it for more than a few seconds of being in the "right" mode before you slip into the "wrong" mode again. This is completely normal. At one level, meditation appears to be paradoxical: your goal is to have no goals. Don't expect it to happen easily.

A usual session of mindfulness meditation looks like

  1. You focus on your subject and keep that focus
  2. Your thought process smoothly transitions to thinking about something else, you are busy thinking these thoughts without realizing that you are not at step 1 anymore
  3. You notice that you have drifted off.
  4. Your mind reacts to you noticing the drift.

    4.a The intended reaction is to acknowledge the distraction, keeping an attitude of mild curiosity and amusement. "I am enumerating the items to get from the supermarket again. But I am meditating now, so let's leave that for later. I could go back to the breathing focus now. In. Pause. Out. Pause. In..."

    4.b Any other reaction is not the intended one. For example, "Wait! I should be meditating, not composing a shopping list! That's wrong! It shouldn't have happened! I'm failing at that damn meditating stuff again! Will I never get it right?" But also "OK, I have drifted away. I have to go back to the focusing part. Did I just react right? Oh yeah, I did! I'm getting good at it, baby! I might get the hang of it after all."

If 4.a happens, you are already back at 1. If 4.b happens, you are already back at 2: you are not focused on your subject. So the whole cycle runs again, this time not about the original drifting away, but about your reaction to the drifting away. This time, 4.a looks something like "Oh, it seems I am judging myself. That's not what meditation is about, so let's go back to the breath again. In..."

You will go through the cycle hundreds and thousands times during a single meditation session. And that's OK. While your long-term purpose is to spend more time in 1 and else get to a 4.a as soon as possible, during a meditation, it should not matter to you whether this happened or not. It's like the difference between being the lotto player who is fervently awaiting the drawing of the exact numbers he crossed on the form, reacting with joy or sadness depending on whether the state of the world matched his expectations and wishes, and being the person who pushes the button to get the balls rolling and then records the numbers - part of the process, and focused on it, but not giving a damn about which number comes out.

While I cannot be 100% sure from your short description that this was what happened to you, it fits with a common side effect of not realizing the above. Instead of seeing each drift-off during meditation as a fresh opportunity to exercise being equanimous and unperturbed by whatever they observe happening, beginners frequently experience it as a frustrating failure. And because it happens so quickly in so such a short, intense time period, the frustration mounts, leading to the feelings you described.

If you are serious about doing therapeutic meditation, I would suggest learning more about how it works, how it doesn't work, and to use sources intended for this purpose, not sources intended for religious meditation. The one which helped me most was "The mindful way through depression" by Mark Williams. While it is obviously geared towards depression, you don't have to have a depression diagnosis to benefit from it. Its focus is on good techniques of mindful meditation. You can simply read on these techniques while leaving out the depression specific material.

You can also try to learn more about human emotional reactions, which is very helpful for understanding yourself while meditating and reducing unrealisitc expectations you might have about your control over your own thought process (which result in frustration during meditation). A very accessible source is Paul Ekman's "Emotions revealed". Note that his categorizing of emotions is only one of many suggested in research, so don't take that part as gospel, although it's fun to read. But his explanation of how an emotion plays out in the mind is valuable, and the detailed descriptions of several emotions can help you deal better with them when they arise in you.

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