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How to Deal With Emotional Triggers & Negative Thoughts During Meditation

You’ve probably heard about the benefits of meditation, and how it can positively impact the brain, regulate emotions, and improve your mental and physical health.

While meditation can be an excellent tool for relaxation and healing, it’s not always helpful or accessible for everyone. In fact, meditation can sometimes make people feel more neurotic, depressed, anxious, or even trigger unresolved trauma.

If you've ever dealt with tense feelings during meditation, it might be helpful to explore what they're trying to show you. Sometimes you'll get a signal that you need to adjust something in your meditation practice, or in your life. Other times, you might get an invitation to face something you've been avoiding that needs support or healing.

Here are some common areas of tension that arise in meditation and ways to respond with mindful awareness.

  • Judgment, shame, and perfectionism. There’s no one best meditative practice and meditation is not a competition. Some techniques might be more powerful than others, but everyone is different and there’s no one size fits all meditation practice. No one is better or more spiritual because of the techniques they use. Shame and judgment deplete your self-worth and can make you feel depressed. Your worth doesn't depend on achievement. If you don't meditate much, don’t be ashamed.

  • Alienation because meditation seems expensive, exclusive, or inaccessible. You don’t have to pay thousands of dollars to learn a simple 15-minute meditation unless you really want to. You can learn how to meditate for free on Youtube, use guided meditation audio tracks, or work with a private teacher to learn how to meditate with any sized budget.

  • Feeling burdened and resentful. You can meditate for 5 hours a day, but if you’re coming from a place of obligation, you’re probably not going to get much out of it. Try to see meditation as an opportunity, not a burden. That said, sometimes we have to push ourselves to do things that are good for us like exercising, going to bed on time, and eating broccoli. If you can reframe meditation as an opportunity, you’ll get much more out of the practice, even if you only meditate for 5 minutes. If you can't shift your mindset and feel like it’s an obligation or punishment, don’t do it. This will only create resistance within yourself, and you’ll end up never wanting to do it because you’ve built up resentment (the opposite of serenity). Give yourself a break and come back to it when you can shift into a more positive mindset. Start with less and then do more, only for as long as it brings you joy.

  • Comparing yourself to others. It’s common to compare your meditation practice or yoga poses to someone else’s. You’ll always find evidence that you’re “better” at some things and “worse” at some things than other people. This mindset only serves as a distraction and takes you away from the whole point of meditation, which is internal peace and equanimity. Comparison creates separation and hierarchy. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy or spiritual snobbery, which are two sides of the same coin. This means you’re strengthening the ego and not your peace of mind.

  • Trauma gets activated. If you become anxious, have disturbing intrusive thoughts or memories, or leave your body when you meditate, stop. Sometimes, this is due to an anxiety disorder or unresolved trauma. In this case, it’s best to hold off on meditation until you address the trauma and anxiety. When people have unresolved trauma, they can dissociate or leave the body. This is different from astral projection or levitation practices. It’s not healthy or safe to use meditation to check out or dissociate, even though it might feel good at the moment. When people dissociate, they’re attempting to escape the trauma by leaving the body, which only reinforces the trauma. If you’re not sure whether you’re doing this, notice if you feel numb, or if you can feel your legs or your breath during meditation. Notice if you can sense your energy within your physical body, or if you feel like you’re hovering above or in outer space. If this is the case, open your eyes. See if you can meditate with your eyes open while focusing on one point in the room. Sit with your feet touching the ground, and press the feet into the ground. You may even want to tense and release your leg muscles to interrupt the stress signal and activate your parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response). If you’re still not present in your body, prioritize addressing the trauma before returning to a meditation practice.

  • Discouraged by the results. Sometimes the positive benefits of meditation are apparent right away, and other times it takes a while. Give yourself at least 8 weeks with any new habit or practice. Commit, without force, to meditating once a day for about 15 minutes. Then, reassess whether meditation is helpful to you or not. If you feel more peaceful, present, and relaxed after meditation, then it’s probably a good fit for you. If you want to increase or decrease the length or frequency, that’s up to you. However, if you continue to feel anxious, tense, or panicked, even after two months of consistent practice, pause your meditations and address the source of the anxiety.

  • You don't like to meditate. The good news is that you can meditate without meditating. There are many alternative ways to quiet the mind and relax the body. Find something that achieves the same results of quieting mental chatter and creating a sense of inner stillness. For some people, hiking, singing, process painting, knitting, gardening, dancing, sculpting, jogging, playing instruments, or swimming can serve as a meditation. Find what works for you, honor your uniqueness, and be consistent, not out of obligation, but as a gift to yourself.

  • Breathing is difficult. Breathing is also a solution. Research and ancient wisdom tell us that slow, diaphragmatic breathing is essential to our mental, physical, and emotional health. If you want to feel calm and less reactive, you don’t have to meditate, but there’s no way to avoid the breath. The good news is that the breath is accessible anytime. If you have a pulse, lungs, and belly, you can breathe anywhere, all throughout the day. Experiment with deep breathing from the moment you wake up, while you’re in the shower, driving, standing in line at the store, talking to people, and even as you drift off to sleep. It might take some time to get the hang of slow, deep, belly breathing. The breath might be choppy, short, constricted, or primarily in the lungs at first. Remember, don’t judge yourself. This is a lifelong practice, and sometimes you might not feel better right away, but your efforts will accumulate over time. If you don’t like to meditate you might enjoy deep breathing because you’re not imposing anything on yourself. You’re supporting the inherent mechanisms that are already present in your body.

At the end of the day, keep it simple, breathe, and use the intention of inner peace as your compass. Let go of everything else. Allow your own unique devotion to your self-care to inspire your meditative practices, whatever they might be.

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