If you find mindfulness relaxing, you're not doing it right

Woman practising mindfulness

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a form of therapy designed to reduce anxiety and worry. Like any new skill, when you first start learning about it and practising you will have a lot of new information to take on board and you will be out of your comfort zone. This is likely to be stressful. If you find it relaxing from day one, it might be a sign that you're doing it incorrectly.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the concept of learning to tolerate sitting with your own thoughts. One of the reasons we feel anxious is that we spend so much of the time worrying about future events rather than living in the moment and enjoying ourselves.

To counter this, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was developed. Using mindfulness meditations, we practise sitting and listening to our own thoughts without becoming emotionally involved in them. They come and go, and we let them float across our mind like clouds moving across the sky.

The idea is that, after practise, this process of guiding our thoughts back to the present moment becomes automatic and we spend less time getting caught up in future worries.

Isn't it just relaxation?

The short answer is no. It is easy to confuse the two: after all, many relaxation techniques emphasise sitting still and clearing your mind. There is an important distinction, though, and that is in the purpose.

Emma Dunford from the Royal United Hospitals Bath NHS Foundation Trust describes the difference1 as:

"Relaxation aims to allow individuals to reduce their feelings of stress or tension, while mindfulness aims to allow individuals to observe their feelings of stress or tension."

Therefore, although the activities look similar, the techniques used are quite distinct.

Why is it not relaxing?

It’s not initially relaxing because sitting with your own thoughts is uncomfortable, especially for anyone suffering from anxiety. We often find relief from avoiding our thoughts. Some people do this by distraction: finding other things to do. Others may resort to drugs and alcohol. Anything to avoid having to sit and think.

But with mindfulness, the whole point is to sit and think. You have to let the thoughts come and go, and resist the urge to get caught up in them. Doing this when you’re new to it is emotionally draining.

Woman practising mindfulness by the sea
The benefits of mindfulness do not appear immediately.

Why do it then?

The benefits of mindfulness do not appear immediately. In fact, in the short term, you might find mindfulness makes you feel worse. First, it is hard to sit with your thoughts. And second, you may find that you are constantly berating yourself for "not doing it right" or getting distracted. Getting distracted happens and it is part of the process, but this is not always explained to beginners.

The real benefits of mindfulness are in the medium and long term. The more you practise the process of not getting caught up in your thoughts and returning to the present, the more you will do this in everyday life, too.

This benefit is not always apparent because it is automatic. You may be having fewer anxious thoughts, but as most people don't keep a daily log of how many they have, the gradual reduction of them can be easy to miss.

What if I do find it relaxing?

One possibility is that you are person with less anxiety. If you are more comfortable with your own thoughts, you may be able to sit with them with little noticeable discomfort.

Another possibility is that you are using a meditation or technique that describes itself as "mindfulness" but isn't really rooted in mindfulness and won't provide the same psychological benefit.

For example, deep breathing exercises or relaxing music can be enjoyable and beneficial. However, they won't provide the same therapeutic results that mindfulness is proven to deliver. Finally, it could be that you are well-practised at mindfulness. The more time you spend doing it, the more comfortable you become with dealing with unwelcome thoughts.

Summary

Mindfulness is a therapy, and like all therapies, it can be uncomfortable. Unfortunately, that is the reality of dealing with anxiety: it can be hard and unpleasant to tackle. It is worth it, though, if you want to stop anxiety ruling your life.

Mindfulness remains a good option if you are looking to do this. But, be prepared that it won't be relaxing initially. And, if you're already doing it and finding it relaxing, it may be worth looking again at the meditations you're using and asking yourself "is this really mindfulness-based?"

References

  1. Dunford, E., & Thompson, M. (2010). Relaxation and mindfulness in pain: A review. Reviews in pain, 4(1), 18-22. ↩︎

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