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When meditation doesn’t work

NOTE: Check out my contribution to Bloomberg Businessweek on this topic.

Meditation doesn’t work for me. Don’t get me wrong – I love the idea of meditation. The only problem is, I have no patience for it.

We are in terribly stressful times… well, most of us are. Meditation is offered up as an antidote to the stressors we are managing during the pandemic. I do meditate on occasion, but not in any consistent and reliable way.

And you know what? I’m fine with that. And I’m giving my people permission to be fine with not meditating to relieve their stress, too.

I’m talking to the A-type personalities whose list of things to do never end.
The high performers who like to be actively engaged in problem solving or topics of interest.
The caregivers who can’t help but do things for others instead of resting for themselves.

And countless others whose minds and bodies like to be doing.

But what about the stress that often accompanies this active brain activity?

While meditation is one fantastic way of relieving stress (so I’ve heard), it’s not the only way. In fact, trying to turn off my brain results in yet another level of stress: Why can’t I relax? Why are these thoughts popping into my head? How on earth does anyone let their mind go blank in the first place? Is that even possible?

I’d love to train my brain to go blank. (OK, not really. In fact, that sounds quite disconcerting.) But I definitely do want the stress relief that reportedly comes with being able to let your mind go blank. But apparently, that takes practice – a lot of practice for some of us.

And I don’t know about you, but I’ve got things to do.

So, do we just have to live with this stress?

Nope.

For active brainers like me, meditation might not be the answer. Instead, a completely engaging and compelling activity – in the opposite direction of stressors – can be just the thing to turn redirect the stressful energy.

If you caught my post on the mental transition from work to home, you’ll recognize that many of the same concepts apply. If you can find one or a few really absorbing things to do that you actually enjoy, this can be the antidote to stress for the rest of us who can’t quite get the hang of meditation.

Here are the things you ought to seek when finding alternative de-stressing strategies if meditation doesn’t work for you:

  1. It must be truly engaging and absorbing, and must command your complete attention. Cooking is a good example. If you get distracted, all the food burns… and maybe so does the house. No slacking off, there.
  2. It should be a healthy activity. Mind-numbing distraction is not the goal. Binging Netflix doesn’t relieve stress. It only distracts you until you must face the stress again. Exercise or puzzles are good ideas of healthy activities.

Sometimes, it’s hard to kick down the intensity of your thoughts in these crazy times. So stop trying. You might need to accept that our brains are just doing what they can to process a lot of new information and new circumstances, and trying to adjust.

That’s perfectly fine. But if you need to get away from the racing brain, and meditation doesn’t work – and neither do other traditional relaxation strategies – try redirecting that active brain energy to something else useful and absorbing, and you might just find the relief you need.


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