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Trouble meditating? Here's advice for 17 common issues

By Your Headspace Mindfulness & Meditation Experts

Meditation has the power to help us stress less, sleep more soundly, find more focus, and so much more. But maybe our practice hasn’t gone exactly as we thought it would, and we haven’t noticed the many benefits yet. Don’t worry! We’ll get to the bottom of all our meditation troubles.

When we meditate, we might feel restless, uncomfortable, overwhelmed, doubtful, or worried we’re doing it wrong, but that’s all okay. Everyone runs into bumps along the way — even seasoned meditators. Having trouble meditating in the beginning is like starting any new habit: it takes practice and patience to feel comfortable, confident, and calm.

This guide will share how to move through obstacles during meditation without feeling too frustrated or judging ourselves. Being kind to our mind is important in meditation — and in life. Looking at each obstacle with compassion, we’ll soon find that they aren’t derailing our practice. They’re simply a part of training the mind to accept things the way they are.

Let’s go over some mindful tips for the most common meditation problems so that the next time we sit down, we can meditate confidently no matter how it goes.

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Why is it so hard for me to meditate?

If we’re having difficulty meditating, it probably means we’re trying too hard to control our mind and our practice. Meditation isn’t mind control, magic, or a superpower … even if we wish it were. It’s a practice that teaches us to be comfortable with our mind just as it is. When we meditate, we don’t try to feel a certain way, change our thoughts, judge them, or try to stop thinking altogether. The mind is always going to think, even during meditation.

Let’s imagine our mind as a highway and our thoughts as cars on the road. Try it now: Is the course clear? Is there traffic today? Maybe our mind is racing with thoughts. Does it feel like there’s a big truck blaring its horn to signal that something demands our attention? Or are all lanes blocked by construction?

There’s no right or wrong answer. Every time we check in with our mind, it’s like we’re monitoring a new traffic report. Just like traffic IRL, we can’t change how many cars are on the road or how long the commute is. We might not like the speed of traffic or the travel conditions, but we deal (hopefully not in a way where we get road rage) and, eventually, get where we’re going.

While regular meditation creates the conditions for us to feel the calm and relaxation of cruising down an open road, it’s also true that we might not feel calm and relaxed as soon as we start or finish meditating. So, to make meditation easier, we can drop our expectations and instead think of these benefits as a side effect of meditation, not the goal. Our only goal during meditation is to stay present and let go of thoughts or feelings as they come. Then, when we get distracted, return to our breath and remember: no matter what obstacles we’re up against, we’re doing just fine.

How do I overcome common meditation problems?

Just like thoughts, we can manage most meditation problems if we can face them compassionately and let them go instead of pushing them away. Here, we’ll learn how to do just that. Let’s make meditation easier on ourselves with this advice on how to fix 17 of the most common meditation problems.

1. What if I’m meditating wrong?

The truth is, there’s no right or wrong way to meditate. But it’s natural to think, “Am I doing this right?” when starting anything new. Whether it’s doubt about our practice or finding an excuse not to meditate, creating resistance is the mind’s go-to move. It only becomes a problem when we listen to that little voice in our heads and buy into that thought. Instead, we can recognize it for what it is — just another thought — let it go, and return our focus to our breath. Even if we have to do this for the entire duration of our meditation, it’s okay. Training the mind to let go will feel different every day and maybe every practice, too.

2. What if I don’t have time to meditate?

We only need a few minutes to meditate. If we’ve never meditated before, a one-minute breathing exercise can go a long way. Or we can try a 3- or 5-minute guided meditation and gradually build up. Still, finding and protecting the time for a short meditation can be challenging if we're overworked and overwhelmed. The workaround is to add meditation to an existing routine. Piggybacking it onto something familiar tricks our mind into resisting it less. Try meditating every time we stop our morning alarm, get out of the shower, brush our teeth, make coffee, or tuck ourselves into bed — whatever works.

3. How do I stay motivated to meditate regularly?

Sometimes we just don’t want to meditate! But our intention to sit with the mind gets easier when we’re clear about our motivation. Without knowing our “why,” we tend to lose interest and give up after the excitement of trying something new begins to fade. So take a minute to think: why do we want to meditate daily? Are we looking to be less reactive when our partner does that one thing? Be less tempted by social media so we can be more present with those we love? Strike a better work-life balance? Catch our breath after diaper duty? Feel less worried about the future? Find time for self-care? It’s okay if this motivation changes over time. But the clearer it is, the easier it will be to apply.

4. Why do I feel so bored during meditation?

Even if we’re clear about our “why,” boredom is inevitable, even for experienced meditators. We’re all used to keeping busy, multitasking, and moving to what’s next. During meditation, we stop and focus on a few repetitive tasks: breathing in and out and letting thoughts come and go. Over and over. All this is way less stimulating for the mind. “What’s the point?” we may think when there’s surely something more productive or interesting to do. But that’s just a thought like any other. If we give into it and rush to something more lively, we never let our mind rest, and we train it to overlook moments of calm. Instead of resisting boredom, stick with it, observe it, and see where it takes us. We might notice that “boredom” is us feeling tired, burned out, or unsatisfied — all things we can tend to in our everyday lives.

5. Why can’t I stop thinking during meditation?

One of the biggest misunderstandings about meditation is that we must “clear” or “empty” the mind, and if we don’t, we’ve failed. Truth is, it’s impossible to stop thinking. And we do it a lot: Harvard psychologists found that we spend almost half our waking hours lost in thought. It only becomes obvious to us when we limit distractions around us like when we meditate. Our only task during meditation is to notice our thoughts that pop up and let them go. To make this easier, we can try labeling them. For example, the next time the mind wanders off about something, say: “thinking,” and gently return to the breath. We can do the same with feelings, too.

6. Why do I feel restless during meditation?

Whether it’s an overactive mind darting to the past or future or a fidgety body, restlessness during meditation indicates that we’re struggling to come to a place of stillness. That’s natural. But because many of us associate restlessness with being “bad,” we try to force ourselves to stop, creating more tension and agitation. Instead of resisting, try to let it go — just like any other thought — and return the focus to the breath. Shifting our attention away from thinking, “I’m restless,” and towards “breathe in, breathe out,” can help us feel more at ease. If we’re still having trouble sitting still or managing racing thoughts, try slowing down in the minutes before meditation to help the mind unwind. After running around all day, slamming on the metaphorical breaks doesn’t make the mind or body instantly still — it needs to coast until it’s ready to let go.

7. Why do I feel impatient during meditation?

Impatience can pop up in various ways during meditation. Maybe we want to hurry up because we have somewhere to be, skip the setup in a guided meditation and get on with it, or think our meditation practice isn’t “progressing” quickly enough. Whatever the impatience, it’s only a thought we can let go. Instead of thinking we need to “be more patient,” we can practice letting go of how we think life should be. The more we do this, the more comfortable we can be with where we are in our practice and everyday life. We might even notice we naturally feel more patient and have greater compassion for the impatience of others.

8. Will I ever get good at meditating?

Learning to meditate is like learning any other skill — if we’re teaching ourselves to bake, we wouldn’t attempt to make a wedding cake after our first few tries! That said, seasoned pros experience the same distractions in the mind as beginners do. The difference is they’ve learned to accept their mind as it is without judging themselves. The next time we feel the urge to criticize ourselves during meditation with negative self-talk, let’s show self-compassion instead. Training the mind to let go is an ongoing process where every day is different. That’s why it’s called meditation “practice,” after all.

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9. How do I stay comfortable while meditating?

If we don’t feel comfortable when we start meditating, we probably won’t feel comfy during our practice. Choose a spot where it’s possible to hold an alert sitting position for a while. Try sitting at the front of a chair to keep a straight back and slightly tuck the chin to lengthen the spine. If that’s not enough support, add a cushion to the chair, move to a couch, or lay down if we’re not sleepy. Still restless during meditation? That’s natural. When we slow down, we tend to become more aware of sensations in the body. If there’s no intense pain, commit to finishing the session. Acknowledge the urge to move or get up without judging or trying to change it, but bring our focus back to our breath (again and again, if necessary).

10. Why do I keep falling asleep during meditation?

Falling asleep during meditation is pretty common, so it’s nothing to beat ourselves up about. We might need to experiment a bit to find a balance between focus and relaxation. First, avoid lying down to meditate, or try meditating outside of the bedroom altogether. If meditating still feels like pressing the snooze button, we can splash cold water on our face before we begin, open a window to get fresh air, or even meditate outdoors on a walk or run.

11. How do I deal with distractions during meditation?

If a child jumps on us, a dog starts licking our face, or the doorbell rings, we’ll need to press pause on our meditation. And that’s perfectly fine to do. Once that distraction has been dealt with, we can pick up where we left off or start over. Other distractions like a phone ringing, a neighbor playing music, or even sirens aren’t a reason to stop or give up. No matter how badly we want them to disappear, we can’t make them. So, the best move is to let go of our resistance and refocus on our breath. We can even say “welcome” to the banging construction, the clanking radiator, or the chatty Zoom call to give our mind a sense of relief. It might be reassuring to remember that once we notice we’re distracted, that is awareness in action. The more we notice thoughts, feelings, emotions, and distractions, the more aware we become.

12. How do I deal with a really annoying itch during meditation?

We want to scratch that pesky itch out of habit to get rid of it because we see it as something unpleasant or annoying that we want to move away from. Try not to during meditation. Why? We’re training the mind to be less reactive and more accepting of our mind and body the way it is. If we learn to sit with the sensation and get curious about how it changes and moves on its own, we’re also learning mindfulness and responsiveness that can positively impact our daily life. So, if we happen to be itchy, give it a beat. We can say to ourselves, “Ah, I have an itch,” and return our focus to the breath. Sit with it long enough, and the sensation might disappear. If it continues, by all means, have a scratch. Just be aware that the more often we move the body, the more difficult it is for the mind to settle.

13. How do I deal with anger or frustration during meditation?

Strong feelings don’t have to derail our meditation or any other part of our day. It might feel that way because we tend to suppress them, but the more we do this, the more insistently they spring back up. Instead of avoiding them, face them head-on. To do this, try focusing less on our inner dialogue, “I’m so angry!”, and more on the physical sensations it's creating in the body — just like we did with the itch. Are we feeling hot? Are we clenching our jaw or fists? Are we frowning? Applying mindfulness to the heat of the moment gives us a chance to work with anger instead of fueling the fire. If we notice we’re still easily set off, we can use different meditation techniques to help us meditate for anger.

14. How do I deal with worry or anxiety during meditation?

Because we’re sitting still, maybe for the first time all day or all week, worry or anxious thoughts can feel even more intense when we meditate. This is normal. Most of us don’t like these feelings, so we try to push away anxious thoughts. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there, and it doesn’t make us any less anxious. In most cases, it has the opposite effect: we get caught up in a loop of anxious thoughts. To short-circuit this, focus on any physical sensations of anxiety, say butterflies in our stomach. When we’re able to drop out of the mind and into the body, we can move away from thinking about worry more easily.

15. How do I deal with sadness during meditation?

Like worry, sadness is natural — it’s not a bad thing or an indication of weakness. It’s common to feel a lump in our throat or shade a few tears while meditating, which is nothing to be fearful of, ashamed of, or seen as inconvenient. If we’re feeling teary-eyed during meditation, don’t hold it back. Let it flow. If needed, take a break from the meditation to allow the emotions to run their course. Having acknowledged something painful in this way might even bring us a sense of relief.

16. How do I deal with pain during meditation?

When we sit to meditate, it's very common to experience a bit of pain, like tension in the body. It seems a bit backwards to welcome discomfort. But bringing awareness to it and making friends with it can make the pain more manageable. Once we’re aware we’re feeling pain, try paying more attention to our reaction to it than the pain itself. That way, we can investigate what’s bothering us. Is it a general area or an exact spot? Does it have a particular shape? Is it a dull pain or a sharp pain? Is there movement around the pain, or does it feel static? If the pain starts and ends with our practice, we can be curious about pain, not judgmental or critical. This helps us shift the way we experience pain to something more manageable. If the pain starts with our practice but doesn’t end once we open our eyes, it might be best to consult a healthcare professional.

17. How do I stop thinking about meditation during meditation?

In our everyday lives, we’re used to pushing ourselves to try harder and get it right. It’s no wonder we’d attempt to overthink meditation, too. But remember: there’s no right or wrong way to meditate. If we analyze our meditation, we run the risk of making the practice harder than it is — simply focus on breathing in and breathing out, and let thoughts come and go. A thought about meditation is just like any other thought. So, use the same technique we do with others and label them “thinking,” so they can drift off, too.

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Key takeaways

  • We might see obstacles as a sign that our meditation is going wrong, but there’s no right or wrong way to meditate — whatever comes up, we’re doing just fine.

  • It might be challenging when we first start, but our only job in meditation is to return to the breath, no matter how often we get distracted.

  • Try meditations to help us start our practice with Headspace.

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