When meditation fails. Alternative ways to calm an anxious mind.


Meditation and mindfulness are popular stress-busting tools.

Interest in meditation and mindfulness as ways to reduce stress has exploded in popularity. They’re great tools to have in your mental health or stress-busting toolkit.

But what if these techniques don’t work for you? 

For some, trying to control your mind with your mind is a bit like trying to hold onto mist. Here I explore some practical alternatives to switching off your stress response and finding peace of mind.

Redefining the word ‘stress’

But first, a reminder: not all ‘stress’ is bad. 

Not every spark of activation within your sympathetic nervous system or drip-release of cortisol indicates a threat to your life. We need an optimum level of sympathetic activation and cortisol release to respond and interact with the world around us.

What we call ‘stress’ can sometimes be positive!

Beneficial stress is called ‘eustress‘ and is defined by how you perceive that stressor — this differs widely between people. For example, talking to a live audience from the stage may be perceived as a negative bowel-loosening threat to one person but as an exciting challenge or extraordinary opportunity to another.

Thus, I propose we avoid lumping all ‘stress’ together and use more nuanced and descriptive language.

For example, I suggest we redefine ‘stressors’ using the phrase threats, challenges or opportunities. Similarly, we should recognise that our so-called ‘stress response’ is the neural and physiological response to threats, challenges or opportunities. Stress is not always an ‘all-or-none fight-or-flight’ survival response based on an evolutionary mandate to escape a sabre-tooth tiger.

But I digress.

Distress is damaging to our health

To be clear, excessive or chronic levels of ‘distress‘ do negatively affect both our physical and mental health. Distress is a neural and physiological response to a threat that lasts too long, is not buffered against or recovered from. Distress is associated with autoimmune disease, migraine, obesity, muscle tension and backache, high cholesterol, coronary heart disease, hypertension, and stroke.

We can’t avoid all sources of threats, challenges or opportunities in our lives, nor would we want to. But we can develop healthier ways of responding to those real or imagined events that cause distress. Learning to recover from rather than simply avoiding all distress is key to promoting mental health and physical well-being.

Does MBSR work to reduce distress?

Many people practise meditation to reduce and switch off their psychological stress response and switch on their relaxation response. Two popular meditation techniques include transcendental meditation, which emphasises using a mantra. And mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which emphasises training in present-focused awareness or ‘mindfulness’.

However, there is mixed evidence to support MBSR as a stress-reduction tool.

For example, a 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine pooled data from 47 trials of the health effects of meditation programs on over 3,500 people. After carefully controlling for the placebo effect, the authors found that MBSR resulted in moderate improvements in anxiety, depression and pain. However, it found low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life.

Another 2015 systematic review of 2668 healthy individuals in 29 different studies found large buffering effects of MBSR against stress, moderate effects on anxiety, depression, distress, and quality of life, and small effects on burnout.

For all its lauded benefits, meditation is not everyone’s cup of tea. And it takes time, training and skill guidance to develop the practice. Indeed, authors of the 2014 meta-analysis state,

“Meditation was a skill or state one learned and practiced over time to increase one’s awareness and through this awareness to gain insight and understanding into the various subtleties of one’s existence. Training the mind in awareness, in nonjudgmental states, or in the ability to become completely free of thoughts or other activity are daunting accomplishments.”

Goyal et al, 2014

Alternatives to MBSR

So what happens if you don’t have the time or resources to attend an eight-week MBSR course? Or it would help if you had immediate mental health first aid and haven’t developed mindfulness skills. Or, like me, maybe you struggle with the practice, thereby inadvertently increasing your distress. Or maybe you don’t want something else on your to-do list.

Firstly, you’re not a failed meditator. You are not ‘practising avoidance’. Nor do you need to ‘delve deeper into your created narratives’ (see the comments here to learn more about what you’re NOT doing wrong).

The Black Dog Insitute also recognises many of us encounter problems with ‘letting go’ and can become panicky when we try to relax. Because different stress management techniques appeal to different people and not all of us are skilled at using our minds to calm our minds, here are a few simple, evidence-based alternatives to meditation for you to try.

  1. IDENTIFY YOUR TRIGGERS. Write a list of events that leave you emotionally drained, with one or two ways to reduce your distress for each. When they occur, use them as an opportunity to practise your stress management techniques. Keep notes on what works for next time.
  2. PRACTICE THE RULE OF 3. Gaze into the distance and name three things you see. Then, stop and name three sounds you hear. Finally, take a moment to notice and wiggle three body parts.
  3. REWARD YOURSELF REGULARLY. It’s important to find joy in the small things and to wallow in moments of pleasure. Schedule indulgences that you can look forward to. The feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine is released not only when we receive a reward the first time but in anticipation of a reward or completion of a goal.
  4. WALK IN NATURE. Gentle repetitive exercises such as walking, swimming, and cycling are good for relieving stress and can be thought of as meditation in motion. When you exercise, you’re taking action. You’re getting out of your mind into your body. And by moving your body, you’re reminding your brain that you retain agency. Your brain evolved to move your body through the world, so moving your body reminds your brain you’re not helpless — you can still act independently and make choices.
  5. BREATHE A PHYSIOLOGICAL SIGH. Slow, deep-breathing exercises evoke the relaxation response by complex biomechanical and neural mechanisms that activate the parasympathetic nervous system. But another technique I’ve recently learned about is the physiological sigh: Breath in twice in quick succession through your nose (you’ll make a sniffing sound as you do so). Hold your breath for four seconds. Then, slowly exhale through your mouth (if you purse your lips like you’re blowing through a straw, that helps slow your breath down even more).
  6. RELAX, MUSCLE BY MUSCLE. In progressive muscle relaxation, you tense up particular muscles and then relax them. Starting with the muscles in your legs and gradually work your way up your body. Tense each muscle group in turn. Make sure you can feel the tension, but not so much that you feel much pain. Keep the muscle tensed for about five seconds. Relax the muscles and keep them relaxed for approximately 10 seconds. It may be helpful to say something like “Relax” as you relax the muscles.
  7. TRY TO STICK TO YOUR TIME ZONE. Often, we feel worried because we’re in a future-focussed state of mind. So, try to think about what is happening right now versus what might happen in the future.

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  1. Manuel on February 15, 2018 at 11:31 pm

    I practice Holosyn technique, which by the way is expensive, but it helps me quite my mind, as the other method requiere certain amount of work, not always agreeable. It does not do all what the creator advertise will do, but one already understood, that being an USA person he will be a tremendous good and effective salesman. The practices you mention are working for a lot of people including myself. I like your articles and for then I Thank you.

  2. Sam on February 26, 2018 at 8:46 pm

    Hello, Nice and profitable post!
    As in my opinion, Smile is the most beautiful weapon in anxious situations. It tells your brain that you are happy. It makes other people happy. Smile boosts your self confidence. So keep smiling 🙂

  3. Smart Pill on June 13, 2018 at 8:33 am

    Totally agree! Especially I like breathing exercises. It definitely decreases the level of stress.
    Joining the discussion I wanna add that when I face up with a dose of anxious that badly influences my sleep and calmness I use to practice yoga that is a great way to get tone both mental and physical state. Joga itself combines deep breathing, relaxation and meditation effects. Thus, try it!
    Be calm!

  4. Bishnu on April 11, 2019 at 3:58 am

    positive & motivating post. Thanks

  5. Chris Byers on December 5, 2020 at 9:22 am

    Great content! This is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. Thanks for your help 🙂

  6. Janice on April 9, 2021 at 5:13 pm

    Brilliant, and for people in the UK timely, as anxiety levels are high with the return to a more “normal” way of life and lockdown being eased. THANK YOU

  7. Gerard on April 9, 2021 at 5:19 pm

    Thank you for sharing your experience of meditation. There is a fundamentalist approach of meditation which requires you to do this or that otherwise you do not follow the path of the guru. This is not very liberating. I tend to let my body lead the dance, breathe deeply when it needs to, or softly, move into asanas in slow motion or flow, say a mantra or chant Oms when it helps. What really matters is to connect with your being not your doing. I also totally agree that it is much better to go out and walk along the beach rather than to force yourself to stay on your mat for 20minutes trying to meditate With a monkey mind

  8. Karen Lerpiniere on April 9, 2021 at 5:44 pm

    Hi, I think this is a great article and will certainly share it with people who struggle with mindfulness and meditation. I also love the differentiation made between positive stress and distress. However, I would just like to pick up on the misleading quote from Goyal, suggesting that training the mind to be “completely free of thoughts” is an aim of Mindfulness. This is a harmful misunderstanding and not helpful to perpetuate it. Nowhere in MBSR or any other Mindfulness modality is it claimed that that’s the aim or that it’s even possible. Training in awareness of the thoughts and the thinking mind is possible , however and there’s a big difference.

  9. Bettina Falkenberg on April 9, 2021 at 6:42 pm

    You could simply use tapping (EFT), in the moment when you need stress relief and as a regular self care tool. Balances the ANS, lowers cortisol and BP, brings calmness and relaxation. Easy to learn and do, I cannot believe that you are not suggesting it. Fast and effective stress relief tool.

  10. Lis Barton on April 9, 2021 at 11:02 pm

    I do agree with what you are saying, but wonder, if like many people, you’ve not really understood what mindfulness is about?
    The mindfulness training in the UK is, as you say, usually 8 weeks, but not 5 days x 8 hours x 8 weeks,! it’s only 2 hours for 8 sessions plus it’s now widely available in online groups, and my charity actually offers it for free.

    Most of what you mention, except the progressive muscle relaxation, are techniques I have leaned from my mindfulness teacher… a horse by any other name… ?

    You may benefit more from practicing your skills, which is true for anything else in life that is worthwhile, but for me the beauty of mindfulness is that it is possible for anyone to benefit from a three minute practice, right now. With a little bit more knowledge, you will find that mindfulness integrates seamlessly into your daily life,; washing the dishes, walking, drinking your cup of coffee, the list is endless. So, no tying your legs in knots while sitting on an uncomfortable cushion in silence for hours on end; I do most of mine lying on my bed, or at my desk, certainly no stress about not “doing my practice” and nothing to add to my to do list. It is more of an attitude than a list of things to do and once learned, it is difficult to forget, unlike lists of advice.

  11. Marcia Bartok on April 9, 2021 at 11:33 pm

    Personally I have been on a meditation journey for several years learning and practicing. However, despite all my attempts to balance my daily schedule I often just don’t find time to fit in cushion time. Thus, I love short, easy strategies for PAUSE during my day.
    Sarah, these are perfect. 🥰 Thank you for sharing!

  12. Anne on April 11, 2021 at 7:55 pm

    I really enjoy reading your posts. This is really helpful.

  13. Gail Wright on April 14, 2021 at 6:17 pm

    All of the alternatives are beneficial, but when you are unable to avoid the trigger, eg a family member who does not acknowledge their effect, it becomes difficult to utilise the strategies.
    Any suggestions?

  14. Get active on April 19, 2021 at 8:53 pm

    This is a really great post! Thanks so much for sharing!

  15. Sabine Simmonds on April 22, 2021 at 8:32 am

    Thanks I much for posting this useful blog. I’ve passed it on to some of my clients already!

  16. Berty Smith on April 26, 2021 at 6:04 am

    I believe meditation is important but there are other methods to calm anxious mind too.

  17. تمريض منزلي on December 28, 2021 at 8:50 pm

    Great article source to read. Thank you for sharing this.

  18. Astroviser on July 1, 2022 at 1:26 am

    Just yesterday I had a session with a long time meditator who shared that she has experienced deep meditations after doing a full session of Yoga stretching. After introducing myself as a meditation consultant, with many years , many hours of practicing meditation, we practiced for 25 minutes. At the end of the 25 minutes, I told her to open her eyes when she feels comfortable to do so. It took her at least five minutes to come back to normal body awareness, making a real effort to open her eyes. She went deep, way beyond any past experiences. What did I do, how does it work? Well in ancient times the seekers already knew
    that everything is shakti, energy. There is a Vedic text that says that when people come together with the intention to meditate, shakti, energy, expands. That energy becomes the focus of your attention. That’s how easy it is. The only thing you need is one other person that knows how to meditate, pay attention.

  19. Cherie on November 4, 2023 at 9:56 am

    Great article. This use to make complete sense to me until menopause struck where although there is no reason to be stress or anxious your hormones kick in. As therapist with over 20yrs experience helping people extinguish their anxiety. This hormonal hijacking of ones mental calmness is something that unless you have experienced it you think a person can just think or meditate their way out of it.

    It is concerning that everyone keeps saying that stress is damaging to your health when sometimes there is nothing you can do about it.

    Definetely a heap more research needs to go into this area.

  20. Timothea Goddard on November 4, 2023 at 12:57 pm

    HI Sarah A colleague just sent me this article by you (although I see it is a couple of years old.)
    What struck me was that Mindfulness and MBSR was being used a little as a “Straw Man”, as all of the things you suggest as alternatives are actually embedded in and form an integral part of the 8 week program.
    I wonder if you have actual experience of the program and the curriciulum. My definition of MBSR is:
    An eight-week group program with the aim of developing attitudes, skills and knowledge in order to reduce suffering and increase freedom in life, drawing on our innate capacities for attention, awareness and wise action.
    1. Attention
    Developing more stability of mind in attending to phenomena of the body, hedonic tone, emotions, thoughts and actions using formal mindfulness meditation practices (body scan, movement, walking, awareness of breath, hedonic tone, mind-states and open awareness) and informal attention to activities in daily life.
    2. Awareness
    Cultivating awareness of immediate unfolding experience, as well as recognition of patterns arising – in the body, posture, emotional and mental life, and actions in relationships and the world. There is an emphasis on turning towards and investigating experience – whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. An investigation of awareness itself is encouraged.
    3. Action
    Exploration of and undertaking responsibility for one’s actions (of body, speech and mind) and how they increase or decrease one’s own suffering and that of others.

    • Sarah McKay on November 5, 2023 at 6:19 pm

      Thanks Timothea. I appreciate your response as a mindfulness practitioner and educator.
      Please bear in mind this updated blog is not based solely on personal experiences but includes systematic reviews of the literature questioning the program’s validity for everyone all the time.
      Clearly, it doesn’t work for everyone, but due to its popularity (and dare I say, good marketing) sometimes those people feel like THEY are the problem (as is frequently pointed out to me in the blog comments!!). Also, most recently, trials of a similar program in schools in the UK failed. So I don’t think we should avoid discussing failures or downsides at all.
      Note, I offers suggestions to find a way to calm for those who don’t have the “time or resources to attend an eight-week MBSR course.”

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