Always Well Within

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Is Meditation the Best Solution for Stress and Overwhelm?

Too busy to meditate?

Have you tried to meditate to manage stress and overwhelm, but found it impossible to maintain a regular practice?

No doubt, you want to meditate for a reason. You know that mindfulness meditation is good for you – for your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

But perhaps you’ve come to see meditation as another pressure and resent the time it takes away from your real-world obligations. Sometimes, you may feel aversion at the very thought of meditation. And, when you try to meditate amidst all the pressing demands of your life, sitting still may feel excruciatingly difficult.

How do you get through this?

Meditation can be a powerful way to bring more serenity into your life. But you must practice meditation regularly to feel its positive effects.

Meditation will never function as a magic bullet for stress or overwhelm if you can’t sit down because you’re subservient to your mile long to-do list.  Meditation won’t relieve your stress if you jump up from your seat as soon as a torrential thought-stream of obligations makes you feel like you’re about to explode.

If life constantly keeps you from meditating or pulls you away from the cushion, you may need to take a serious look at the reality of your day-to-day world and make adjustments before you can fully reap the benefits of quiet time.

How to Work with Pressure, Stress and Overwhelm in Meditation

It takes time to establish a regular practice of meditation and experience its rewards. In fact, I’ve observed a 50% drop off rate in online meditation classes precisely because the busyness of life quickly pulls people away.  Here are a few common places where people get stuck in meditation due to stress and overwhelm and 4 tips for working around them.

Too busy to meditate? This will help.

1. Scaling Back Your Life

Meditation will feel like an extra burden if you already lead an overwhelmed life.  The obvious solution is subtraction not addition.

So the first question to ask is this:   What can you subtract so that you can add meditation into your life without a sense of increased pressure and stress?

There’s only a limited amount of time in each day. But many of us get trapped in trying to accomplish more than is humanely possible.  Is this what’s happening for you?  Consider these ways to simplify your life:  10 Ways I Embraced Simplicity and You Can Too.

Meditation will not fix a permanently overwhelmed life.  The way to manage an overwhelmed life is to scale back.  Then you can add meditation in.

Do you have too much on your plate?  How can you scale back?  What can you subtract to make space for meditation in your life?  

2.  Deceptive Brain Messages

Scaling back sounds good, but does it seem unthinkable to you?  If so, why is that?

It may be due to inner messages that keep you on the wheel of overwhelm. Most of us are subject to deceptive brain messages that were acquired early on in life. For example, you may have a deep-seated belief that your value depends on holding the world together, staying busy or productive, being perfect, or being the best.

Deceptive messages like these get entrained in your brain and result in unhealthy behaviors.  Due to the way the brain functions, you then feel compelled to repeat the same unhelpful behaviors over and over again.   It comes to feel like a matter of survival, and busyness them feels like an inescapable way of being.

With dedication, it’s possible to retrain the brain and overcome deceptive brain messages.

I learned about deceptive brain messages from the book You Are Not Your Brain, The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life by Jeffrey Schwartz, M. D. and Rebecca Gladding, M. D.  Mindfulness is the first step in their proven 4-part strategy for identifying and breaking free of deceptive brain messages.  You can read my review and summary of the book by clicking the link above.

If you feel trapped in busyness, it may be time to investigate the possibility that long-held inner messages are keeping you locked in.

Are there any repetitive inner messages that seem to keep your life out of control?

3.  You Might Be a Highly Sensitive Person

Research has shown that 15-20% of the population is highly sensitive.  These individuals have a more sensitive nervous system due to genetics.  And people who are highly sensitive are more easily overwhelmed than others.

That doesn’t mean you’re flawed.  There are many positive aspects to being a highly sensitive person. In fact, the highly sensitive person is generally more in tune with the spiritual dimension of being.

But it might be harder for you to settle into meditation if your nervous system is overcharged, especially if you’re taking on more than you can actually manage in your day-to-day life. Chances are, you’ll feel and operate better if you understand and accept your propensities, be realistic in your expectations, and give yourself more downtime to regenerate. Meditation can nourish your nervous system and give you a protective barrier if you are willing to simplify and make space for it.

Are you easily overwhelmed by sensory input?  Are you more aware of the subtleties in your environment?  Do other peoples’ moods tend to affect you?

These are just a few clues that may indicate you’re a highly sensitive person, which is also known as Sensory-Processing Sensitivity.

4.  Staying With It

Another possibility is to stay (relatively) still regardless of what arises in your mind during meditation.

The mind doesn’t miraculously calm down after your first few sessions of meditation.  In the beginning, it often seems wilder than ever, not necessarily because it is.  You may just be noticing how crazy it is for the first time.

If you can manage it, one way to deal with the thunderous waterfall of thoughts, emotions, and impulses in meditation is to remain the observer.  This includes noting restlessness and the impulses to get up and get busy without caving in to the pull.

Apply whatever method you are using – for example, returning to the breath – whenever thoughts, emotions, and sensations arise.  Eventually, the mind will calm down.  It may take a few weeks of regular practice to see a shift, but one will gradually occur.

It might feel excruciating at times to sit still like this when your mind feels so active.  But eventually the feeling will pass, and this capacity to patiently observe will gradually bring you more and more peace.

Ironically, it could be these very feelings of pressure and restlessness that keep you in the loop of overwhelm.  Often, we want to quell the feeling of pressure by doing something.  That works on the short run – it might make you feel better to tick something off the list – but it will just keep you in an endless cycle of having to be busy to dispel stress and pressure.

If you can sit through feelings of annoyance, overwhelm, or stress in meditation, it will have a beneficial effect on the rest of your life as well. At the same time, I don’t recommend pushing yourself beyond your limits with marathon sessions, ignoring serious physical discomfort, neglecting important responsibilities, or engaging in an embattled stance in meditation.  Find a balance of healthy discipline that doesn’t stray into giving up too easily in a session or pushing so hard that you feel so frustrated you want to give up for good.

You can start out with short meditations sessions, just 5 – 10 minutes in length.  A gentle, playful approach is always more skillful in meditation.  And, you’ll be halfway to success if you can remember, “It’s just my mind trying to pull me away from meditation.”

These articles will help you fine tune your meditation practice:

Meditation can be powerful way to relieve stress, once you understand your own proclivities and work with them accordingly.  If you’re on high speed all the time, you’ll probably need to make a few lifestyle changes like the ones I’ve shared before you can settle into meditation and fully receive its life-enhancing benefits.  Once you clear the space for meditation and begin to practice regularly, your mind will naturally calm down and you will discover a greater sense of inner peace.


My e-course, Living with Ease, The Mindful Way to Less Stress, offers a complete roadmap for dissolving stress and preventing it from overwhelming you again.  The course combines mindfulness, self-inquiry, and supportive stress reduction techniques to help you give stress the boot.  Check out the course details here.


Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious!  Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free self-development resources (e-books, mini-guides + worksheets) in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always.  With love, Sandra

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14 Comments

  1. Holy Moly Sandra! I took the Highly Sensitive Person test and ticked every box!!!! YIKES!!! I think this is why I don’t go to movies or many other things that are out of my house or studio (except for my walks). That really explains a lot of things. I am going to find out more about this! Most of the time, I do not feel like I am “wearing skin” but I do not think too much about it, just avoid new things that might be too …. well, just too much of too much 🙂 . I’ll bet you are a HSP, too, aren’t you, Sandra! 🙂

    • I’m glad this resonated for you, Jean. It sounds like you have an intuitive understanding already and this new layer of information will just be affirming and help a bit more.

      You guessed it! Yes, I’m a HSP too, although it’s impossible to discern what came with me at birth and what got added on due to trauma and eventually with illness.

  2. Your sentence caught my eye: If you feel trapped in busyness, it may be time to investigate the possibility that long-held inner messages are keeping you locked in.

    I am very passionate about the transformation and messages that I offer. Because of my desire to reach out, I am busy every day. I’d like to think that I am not trapped in busyness and that I do take time out for quiet reflection, meditation and bonding with my kids. It’s quite a balancing act.

    Still, I appreciate your message about not giving up even when the mind is active. There have been times when I did give up after sitting for a while and not making a headway with my meditation session. Clearly patience is key. Doing less can be a lot more!

    • Hello Evelyn,

      I completely understand and am inspired by your passion for a full life and your compassionate motivation for sharing your message. I feel that’s quite different than busyness just for the sake of business. I know it’s a balancing act to accomplish our purpose and to also have ease in our lives at the same time! I trust you are finding the best way for yourself.

      Sometimes it does make sense to get up from a meditation session when the mind and body are too unruly and sometimes it makes sense to apply gentle discipline. Every situation is different and I think it’s a matter of developing trust in ourselves.

  3. Mostly Sandra, I meditate because I like it.

    I’ve decided it’s a priority in my life regardless of what else is happening. Busy or not.

    I learned over many years that it’s my mind that creates stress and once I discovered I was not my mind and I could choose to ignore it if I wanted to, stressfulness became…well…less stressful.

    Because I no longer identify myself as much with my mind it’s easier to ignore it during meditation. Yes, it still operates in much the same way as everyone else’s, quieter when I first focus on breathing, and interrupting every now and then, which I ignore. As soon as I’m aware I’m thinking I merely return to my focus…be it on breathing, counting, listening.

    I definitely experienced more peace, better health and greater joy in my life as I began a regular meditation practice. It isn’t very long…15 minutes…but I find it works wonders.

    • Elle, This is so insightful and inspiring: “I learned over many years that it’s my mind that creates stress and once I discovered I was not my mind and I could choose to ignore it if I wanted to, stressfulness became…well…less stressful.”

      I’m so inspired to hear that meditation works so well for you. And I think you’ve hit upon such an important key: we are not these thoughts and emotions, but an awareness that’s much bigger than that. Having that understanding makes a huge difference.

  4. Great post. You know that I totally think meditation can be part of a solution to most mental health issues. I have written about my using Jeffrey Schwartz’ “Four R’s” method. It really works AND it changes your brain permanently. Better than any pill!

    • I completely agree with you, Debbie. Meditation is powerful. I’m deeply inspired by how the “four R’s” worked so miraculously for you. I hope this post will help people remove some of the obstacles that keep them from all the benefits they could be receiving in meditation.

  5. Christoper

    Going to sleep more quickly is another skill it would be nice to obtain from meditation practice. However, quickly & purposefully moving from the conscious state of wanting to go to sleep to the unconscious state of being asleep is something I have not yet completely mastered.

    • Yes, it would be nice to fall asleep easily. I believe meditation can help calm our nervous system and help with this. I wish you the best with mastering this!

  6. I like what one Buddhist teacher said when asked about when he meditated. “I am never not meditating,” he answered. I think at the beginning, meditation can seem like one more thing to add to an already too long to do list. But if we follow your suggestions (which are always so great), gradually meditation permeates our lives and the line between when we are meditating and when we are not becomes blurred. The benefits from our “formal” meditation begin to spill over into the rest of our lives such that even those long to do lists are less overwhelming, and we have a deeper reservoir of energy to cope with everything in our busy lives.

    Also, meditation can become our “go to” technique when we really are overwhelmed. When I’m feeling anxiety rise, my urge is to move, to escape. But when I can just go sit and breathe into the agitation, it dissipates, at least sometimes–ha!

    So in a backwards sort of way, “adding” meditation to our long list of things to do can create a sense of more space and time rather than less.

    As always, you rock the meditation encouragement and practical guidance!

    • Thanks, Galen. These are such valuable insights. Meditation really is about cultivating mindfulness and awareness and as you say eventually we want to erase that line between formal meditation and life so there’s simply awareness all the time. You’ve captured this beautifully.

      Meditation changes things in so many ways. I agree, it can add that sense of spaciousness and change our relationship to time as well.

  7. Focusing on breath mostly during meditation works best for me. That way my monkey mind doesn’t jump around too much.
    I work on calming myself and manifestation during my meditations. Positive Visualizations help me stay in that positive mind-frame daily.
    Love this article Sandra.
    xoxo, Z~

    • The breath can bring so much stability! So good to hear how well it works for you, Zeenat. I’m not too good with visualization, but I know it can be powerful for many. Love to you, Zeenat.

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