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What to do if you feel anxious when you meditate

by Andy Puddicombe

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A few months ago I started having trouble with anxiety and panic attacks. I was recommended Headspace, so I started and got to Day 15. Through the process, I have had a big focus on my pulse, and sometimes it is very predominant. 

I feel now as if I have hit a wall. I’ve started getting what I’ve come to call “stress rushes” during my meditation. It almost feels like the onset of a panic attack, where my pulse rises and becomes very strong. I find myself scared to meditate and feel a lot of resistance to it—my pulse will rise even thinking about it.

What do you make of this? Should I just continue, even though I sit there for 20 minutes feeling a strong pulse in my chest and head? I have gotten so much out of the meditation, and I want to continue!

.  .  .

Hi, it’s great to know Headspace has been so useful in your life and thanks for all the kind words.

In answer to your question, yes, it is not uncommon when learning to meditate to become more aware of physical sensations. This can sometimes be aches and pains we were not previously aware of, or the feeling of our heartbeat, our pulse and so on.

Every person reacts to this differently. Some people have an underlying sense of frustration in their life and so they tend to react toward the feeling or sound with irritation. Some people have an underlying sense of hopelessness in their life and so they tend to react toward the feeling with self-pity. Others have an underlying sense of happiness and optimism and may well react with a sense of joy in feeling they are alive. So experiencing anxiety in relation to the sound or feeling simply suggests that there was already an undercurrent or predisposition toward anxiety.

This may not sound like good news at first, but it is part of the process of becoming more aware, of letting go. So please don’t be discouraged. Right now there is a loop in play, where the mind feels anxious and is, therefore, anxious as to how the meditation will play out. As a result, the body begins to experience sensations related to anxiety, such as an increased and strengthened heartbeat. In turn, the mind recognizes this feeling as something to worry about and ramps up the intensity of anxiety. And so it goes on.

So we need to find a way to step out of the loop. Next time, when you feel the pulse, rather than trying to calm it down or get away from it, and rather than trying to focus on the breath, simply give the feeling your full attention. What exactly are you focusing on? Is it the sound or the sensation? If it’s the sensation, where do you feel it? How would you describe the sensation? How would you describe the intensity? Simply be curious, without getting caught up in the anxiety itself. You are learning more about it and thereby changing your relationship toward it.

I would suggest staying with Take10 for now, just until you feel more confident again. But in short, it’s all good and there is nothing to worry about at all.

Warm wishes,

Try a mini-meditation for letting go of stress:

Andy Puddicombe

Andy Puddicombe is a meditation and mindfulness expert. An accomplished presenter and writer, Andy is the voice of all things Headspace. In his early twenties, midway through a university degree in Sports Science, Andy made the unexpected decision to travel to the Himalayas to study meditation instead. It was the beginning of a ten-year journey which took him around the world, culminating with ordination as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Northern India. His transition back to lay life in 2004 was no less extraordinary. Training briefly at Moscow State Circus, he returned to London where he completed a degree in Circus Arts with the Conservatoire of Dance and Drama, whilst drawing up the early plans for what was later to become Headspace.

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