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

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Meditation and mindfulness are popular stress-busting tools.

Interest in meditation and mindfulness as ways to reduce stress have exploded in popularity. They’re great tools to have in your mental health 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 is an indication of 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 move away from 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 threat, challenge or opportunity 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 wellbeing.

Does MBSR work to reduce distress?

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

But there is mixed evidence to support MBSR is 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. But it found low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health–related quality of life.

Whereas 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 you’re in need of 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 do not want something else on your to-do list.

Firstly, you’re not a failed meditator. You are not ‘practicing 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 and relax. Because different stress management techniques appeal to different people and not all of us are skilled at using our mind to calm our mind, 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 name three things you see. Then, stop and name three sounds you hear. Finally, take a moment to notice and wiggle three parts of your body.
  3. REWARD YOURSELF REGULARLY I’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 exercise such as walking, swimming, and cycling are good to relieve stress and can be thought of like 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 a complex bio-mechanical and neural mechanisms that active 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 very slowly exhale through your mouth.
  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 a great deal of 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 muscle.
  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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6 Comments

  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 🙂

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About Dr Sarah

I’m an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women's Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness.

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