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7 Meditation Mistakes That Secretly Stress You Out

A meditation teacher shares the most common meditation mistakes people make, like falling asleep, that may actually stress you out more.

Common meditation mistakes and how to fix them

With the coronavirus pandemic and a social justice movement, it can feel overwhelming to find the time to unplug and reconnect with yourself through meditation. While it’s good to stay well informed and help out those around you, it’s equally as important to take the time for some self-care—and meditation is one way to achieve that.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, meditation has long been known to promote calmness and physical relaxation. The best part? It doesn’t take a big chunk of your day, and your mind and body could potentially be better for it. But, before you start to practice it, there are a few things you should know.

We spoke with a meditation teacher who shares the most common meditation mistakes people make that could actually stress them out more. (Try these mini meditations to reduce stress and anxiety.)

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You fell asleep

The first spare moment you have is at 11 p.m., after homework, dinner, baths, and the kids are in bed. If you start to meditate, you might find yourself dozing off as soon as you close your eyes—what a surprise. After 20 minutes, you wake up, feeling frustrated that it didn’t work. Don’t be mad at yourself. See slumber as a positive and healthy result. “Falling asleep during meditation is a good thing,” says Light Watkins, a meditation teacher and author Bliss More: How to Succeed in Meditation Without Really Trying. “It shows that it’s working. Go with it.” (If you need help with scheduling, check out 10 tips for sneaking meditation into your life.)

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You can’t focus

Here’s the primary misconception about meditation: It’s impossible to think about nothing or completely clear your head. If your mind wanders to the laundry or work deadlines, don’t get annoyed with yourself. “It’s harder to focus than to let your mind wander,” says Watkins. But she says it’s not important how well you focus during meditation—you’ll get better at it over time. What’s important is how meditation will help you focus better at work or in a conversation, he says. “You’ll be able to focus better after you finish,” says Watkins. “Focus is a byproduct of meditation, not its means.” And you’ll reap some of yoga’s health benefits, such as decreased anxiety and stress.

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You’re forcing it

If your mind tends to go a mile a minute, sitting in silence can be downright painful. Instead of looking for a quiet place to meditate, focus on the sounds around you to bring you deeper into your awareness. “The most proficient meditators know how to meditate even with noise around them,” says Watkins. It’s worth finding a way to make meditation possible in almost any setting: A 2014 analysis of 47 studies published in JAMA found that mindfulness meditation was shown to have moderate evidence of improved pain, depression, and anxiety. (Check out how quickly you can start to benefit from meditation.)

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Your expectations are too high

If you’re expecting something incredible and miraculous to happen when you open your eyes, you will be disappointed. “If you haven’t done it before, don’t expect miraculous results overnight. The benefits are incremental,” says Watkins. “Set your expectations for a marathon approach, not a sprint.” Enjoy the benefits as they come, and enjoy and trust the process. It often improves your health in subtle ways: The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health points out that there’s scientific evidence that meditating can lower blood pressure and ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome over time.

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You give up too easily

Don’t give up on this powerful tool. “It’s like working out. You won’t get bigger biceps or be more fit after working out once or twice,” says Watkins. “Only over time will meditation pay off.” Daily practice helps release pressure buildup in little spurts—the kind of stress that can be debilitating if you don’t address it.

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You only let yourself sit cross-legged on a cushion

If you have an ingrained image that you must sit on a cushion with candles burning around you, toss it. That’s only in the movies or for people who find that position comfortable. “People think they need to sit like a monk,” says Watkins. “Sit like you’re watching Netflix.” Sit wherever and however works best for you. “There is no right way to meditate,” says Watkins. “If you do it at the same time, using the same technique, you’ll get the effects of mediation faster. Your brain will adapt to it a lot faster.”

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You’ll only meditate when conditions are perfect

Do you say “I’ll start meditating again on Monday?” That’s just like promising yourself to start a diet or hit the gym—tomorrow. Yes, being consistent about time and place will help you establish a habit and reap the most benefits. But you don’t have to wait until your life is perfectly in place. There’s no better time to start than now. “It’s a fantasy to think that your life will be perfect,” says Watkins. “Meditation can help create the peace that you’re looking for.”

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Stacey Feintuch
Stacey Feintuch is a seasoned print and digital writer who has worked at numerous health and parenting websites and magazines. She has a B.A. from George Washington University, and an M.A. from Syracuse University, Newhouse School. Stacey is the mother of two energetic boys and resides with her family in northern New Jersey.