What to do When Mindfulness Isn’t Working

Don’t give up on it just yet.

Serene photo of two spherical rocks resting on top of each other, with a warm orange-brown background and some moss.
Serene photo of two spherical rocks resting on top of each other, with a warm orange-brown background and some moss.

Mindfulness seems to be the flavour of the month when it comes to mental health. Every doctor I see, from my GP to a random A&E doctor (who was supposed to be treating my cough) feels the need to pitch it to me. There’s a good reason — it can quite literally rewire your brain. One study showed that just 8 weeks of mindfulness can change brain structure, and help improve emotional regulation. Yet, no matter how much I studied the merits of mindfulness, I just could not make it work for me. When you’re anxious, trying to sit still and clear your mind of all thoughts is a tall order. So, here are some ways to make it a little more achievable.

Start Off With a Mindful Activity Instead

Colouring, yoga, knitting; whatever it is that relaxes you and gets you to focus on calming physical sensations rather than obsessing over thoughts. Trying to jump right into mindfulness can be daunting, but clearing your mind through a relaxing hobby that you enjoy can help get you into a mindset where meditation is then more attainable. We all know that when you deliberately try not to think a certain thought, it becomes impossible to get out of your head. So instead of dictating ‘I need to clear my mind of thoughts now’, focusing on something your hands are doing is a more natural way to gently release anxious thoughts from your mind.

Cut Yourself Some Slack

Mindfulness is not the mystical activity that most people think it is. It’s not necessary to ‘master’ it, to spend hours sat cross-legged without thinking a single thought. Yes, meditation as a spiritual practice is about putting in the hours and becoming an expert — but for the vast majority of people, it’s psychological, not spiritual. If ‘mindfulness’ feels too Gwyneth Paltrow hippy-dippy for you, just think of it as tidying up your mind. When a thought comes into your mind you just have to politely file it away and say “I’ll come back to you later.”. Rather than worrying about doing it ‘right’ just try it, because giving it a go is always better than not trying it at all.

If it’s Really Not Working, You Might Need More Support

As much as I’m on board with mindfulness, and think it has a great evidence-backing, it’s not a substitute for more intensive mental health care. It’s the perfect tool for people struggling with normal human levels of anxiety or sadness, but if you’re experiencing symptoms so severe that they’re getting in the way of your life, you need more help than mindfulness. Think of it as a single screwdriver in your toolbox — if you’ve just got one loose screw that needs tightening, it’ll do the trick, but if the whole house is falling down, you need to get yourself some more tools. Talking therapies and medication are both good next steps to discuss with your doctor, so don’t feel like you’ve failed to ‘fix yourself’ if mindfulness isn’t clearing up all your symptoms.

Feminist, mental health advocate, Netflix obsessed.

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