Testing the Waters

A few weeks ago, in a post about mindfulness, I cryptically alluded to possible risks associated with mindfulness practice. This post is kind of about that. Mostly, I wanted to offer some words of caution and reassurance for those who might find tuning into present moment experience — whether through attention to the felt sense or through practices such as meditation — to be overwhelming.

all the feels!

It’s true: Getting in touch with what is really going on for you — the bodily sensations that usually fly under the radar, the thought patterns that repeat so faithfully that we take them to be who we are — can be overwhelming. And not just in a “How fascinating: I had no idea I was so judgemental!” kind of way, but in a “I literally feel like I am drowning/I think meditation might be causing a panic attack” kind of way.

Traditionally, in the context of mindfulness meditation, the instruction is to stay with any uncomfortable thoughts or sensations with an attitude of curiosity and non-judgment and to simply watch as they transform and perhaps even dissolve over time. I myself have given these very instructions many times and believe that the ability to be with the flow of present moment experience without clinging or resistance is at the heart of the transformative power of meditation and most somatic movement practices. But after quite a lot of training and research in trauma recovery and autonomic nervous system function, I have come to understand that entering the sea of subjective experience is, for many of us, something that is best done gradually rather than at a run. In other words, we can test the waters rather than doing a cannonball.

Some people have no problem plunking down on a meditation cushion or a yoga mat, sensing inside, and feeling all the feels. For these people the experience of being-with-what-is can be by turns illuminating, enlivening, troubling, and challenging, but is ultimately one that leads to greater self-awareness and agency. For others, though, it be profoundly disorienting. There are lots of reasons for this, none of them having to do with discipline, motivation, moral fortitude, or sticktoitiveness. Instead, they have more to do with the sensitivity and robusticity of the nervous system, something that is shaped by the totality of our life experience and is highly individual.

Working within the window of tolerance

While learning to sit with uncomfortable thoughts, sensations, emotions, etc. can be extremely valuable and is essential if we want to expand our window of tolerance in an embodied way, it is important to be sensitive and responsive to our own experience and to go slow. You can only expand your window of tolerance from within your window of tolerance. It doesn’t work to pry that sucker open from the outside. So, if tuning in to your experience causes you to immediately fly out of your window, my suggestion is to scale your practice back — maybe waaaaay back — in time and intensity so that you can remain within the window and gently make it bigger over time.

How can you tell whether you are outside of your window or just experiencing the some of the discomfort that inevitably accompanies greater self-awareness? Below are some clues. If you experience any of these when you try to tune in and “stay with” your experience, it could be a sign that your nervous system is overwhelmed and I would strongly encourage you to seek qualified support before continuing:

  • Breathing that is quick, shallow, and/or ragged

  • Holding your breath

  • Flashbacks or troubling memories

  • Elevated heart rate

  • Severe anxiety or panic

  • Rigidity of posture

  • Dizziness

  • Dissociation

  • Feeling like you can’t locate yourself in space

  • Feelings of emptiness or despair

There are also a number of “normal” obstacles that arise during meditation, even among experienced practitioners: sleepiness, boredom, restlessness, etc. It is important to keep an eye on these as well. If you are able to maintain an attitude of curiosity with respect to these states — even if they remain unpleasant — then you are probably fine to continue. But if, for example, sleepiness, starts to slide into despair or dissociation, I would recommend stopping the practice and seeking help from an experienced instructor or one of the resources listed below.

Touch and go

If you recognize your own experience in the list above, but you are interested in meditation practice or in simply cultivating a stronger connection with your felt sense as you move through your day, fear not. You aren’t broken or doing it wrong. You’re not “too stressed to meditate” or doomed to remain at a distance from your embodied experience. But, your nervous system might, for any number of reasons, be on high alert and you may have to begin by taking a “touch and go” approach.

What I mean by this is: maybe instead of diving into your experience and staying with it no matter what, you just touch it with your awareness, name it, and then leave it. Metaphorically, you dip your toe in the river, see how the water feels, and then step back on the bank. This isn’t cheating or slacking or taking the easy way out. It is offering nervous system the sense of safety and responsiveness it requires in order to become more resilient. Over time, you may notice that you are able to stay with your experience a little bit longer and with a little more openness and curiosity. But this can take time. There isn’t a prize for doing it quickly and, in fact, moving too quickly or aggressively can result in further dysregulation.

A few tips and tools

Here are some things you can do in the context of a meditation practice, yoga practice, or the practice of tuning in to the felt sense:

  • Meditate for short periods — maybe as little as 2 or 3 min.

  • Try to make sure you are in your window of tolerance before beginning your practice. Some people find that a meditation break when anxious can be calming, but others only get stirred up further. Try some grounding movement (like this or this) to get out of your head and into your body before turning your attention inward.

  • See if you can sense a place in your body that feels good, comfortable, or safe. Bring a hand to that place and feel the warmth and pressure of the contact between your hand and body as you breathe. You can do this during meditation or even just while checking in with the felt sense.

  • Orient. I described this simple practice in this post and it is one of my absolute favourites. One of the things I love about it is that you can do it anywhere. So, if you were sitting in, say, a meditation class, and started to feel overwhelmed, you could stop meditating and do the orientation practice to help re-regulate.

  • For some people, the best part of a yoga class is savasana at the end. For others, it can feel very exposed and vulnerable. If this is you and you feel comfortable talking to your teacher, you could explain that you would prefer to rest in a different position. If not, you might consider covering up with one of the blankets that most yoga studios have. Maybe even two or three blankets — the weight can be very calming.

  • Look for teachers who have training in trauma recovery and/or nervous system health — even if you don’t identify as someone who has experienced trauma. Teachers with a background this area understand how to work skillfully and progressively with the nervous system. A trauma-sensitive teacher can help you get the dosage right by providing lots of tools for self-resourcing and can gently and skillfully encourage you to go deeper as your capacity increases.

These are just a few ideas. The important thing is to give yourself permission to go at your own pace and to find teachers and other practitioners who support and encourage you in this. A lot of people attend a meditation group or a yoga class and become discouraged or worse (I’m looking at you, shame) when they don’t experience what they think they are “supposed to.” Well, there is no supposed to. Your experience is your experience and there is a way to work with it.

Thanks for reading.

go deeper

Willoughby Britton at Brown University is doing excellent research around possible adverse effects of meditation. Check out her lab here.

David Treleaven’s book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness is one of the best things I have read in years. You can learn more about his work (and the book!) here.

Jane Clapp, a trauma recovery coach and movement educator based in Toronto, is one of my teachers. Check out her Instagram for helpful tips, fun stuff to practice, and great food for thought.

Irene Lyon, a nervous-system specialist based in Vancouver, also has great resources — many free — for dealing with chronic and traumatic stress.

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