Why Meditation Is Not the Best Way to Manage Stress (and What’s Better)
Are you living a life with few true emotional connections? Are you uncomfortably preoccupied with evaluating your output and your performance?
It is an admittedly seductive idea: Train yourself to focus on something, anything, other than your worrying, surveilling thoughts, and relief will be yours.
Unfortunately, though, it just can’t help us as much as we’d like to believe. Meditation is not the best way to soothe ourselves when we’re feeling stressed out.
Let me tell you about what’s better.
The Simple Reason We All Feel Stressed Out
Before jumping in, first let’s unpack what’s making us all feel so drained and empty in the first place. Then, we can better understand why meditation became so popular (and where it falls short).
Stress – at least the kind those of us with laptops are facing – is essentially unrelenting, judgmental self-focus.
And by self-focus, I mean those constant little self-chides about not doing enough, about not being good enough. Feeling frustrated with other people when they mess things up and get in our way also counts.
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However, we need this kind of self-focus at times in order to achieve our goals. This is because just thinking about our unmet goals – an obvious requirement for their pursuit – activates this kind of stress.1
On the other hand, research tells us that people with more moderate levels of self-focus are happier than people with high levels.2
And so, when we feel drained and exhausted, we conclude that it’s got something to do with the excessive amount of time we’re spending thinking about ourselves and our problems.
What All Forms of Relaxation Have in Common
A very natural and obvious solution to this conundrum is to try to spend less time looking at ourselves and more time looking at other things:
Looking at something else (in other words, not judgmentally at ourselves) is what all forms of relaxation have in common.
The Two Ways to Pursue Looking at Something Else
There are two main ways we can direct our attention away from our goals and progress (or lack thereof).
1) The first way is to positively distract ourselves with rewarding yet relaxing activities – like going on a beautiful hike or reading a fantasy novel.
Research from around the world reveals that when we feel in awe of gorgeous scenery or a complex make-believe civilization, we feel small and insignificant in an unmistakably soothing way.3
But while positive distractions can be a great tool to help us combat stress, they have some drawbacks:
- Require that we actually have an available distractions on hand
- Can be expensive (in terms of both time and money)
- Can morph into avoidance and escapism – which will ultimately make our stressful self-focus come back with a vengeance.
Many people have turned to the second way of getting relief:
2) The second way to stop stressful self-focus is to train ourselves to focus wherever we choose, on command: Meditation.
By training our attention like a muscle, the idea goes, we can spend time away from self-imposed pressure and on anything of our choosing (like our breaths or a chant) at any time.
And even better, observing irrepressible negative thoughts and feelings as temporary and objective events in the mind has been shown to decrease stressful self-focus.4
In other words, we can use meditation to explore ourselves and our problems with calm detachment, avoiding the escapism trap.
If you want to learn more about how meditation can help you (which it surely can), you should check out this excellent FREE GUIDE by Tim Brownson.
Meditation sounds pretty great, huh? I’m even recommending it as a helpful tool to combat stress in this post.
So what’s the problem? What could possibly be better than meditation?
The Essential Stress-Relief Ingredient Missing From Meditation
There is no problem with meditation, per say. It has key elements for stress-relief, and it certainly doesn’t cause anyone any harm.
But it is simply not enough for humans to rejuvenate themselves with after sustained periods of stressful self-focus.
In fact, once you are aware of why, you might find yourself wondering how anyone ever thought that it might be.
Yes, in order to feel peace we need to stop scrutinizing ourselves. And, yes, having the skills to send our attention away from our stressful self-focus really helps.
But in order to feel truly and completely at ease and joyful, we need to regularly give ourselves something fundamental and essential to the human experience:
We need regular instances of EMOTIONAL CONNECTION –the experience of two or more people knowingly perceiving and feeling in unison.
Meditation offers us many things – including the ability to arrest our negative thoughts – but it does not offer us the ability to abolish our primal yearnings.
When we go too long without real emotional connection, we can start to feel so lonely. And our stressful self-focus goes through the roof. We often frantically search for ways to achieve our way into feeling better, causing a vicious cycle.
Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert famously wrote in his book, Stumbling on Happiness:
“We are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have friends and almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends.”
Why it Can Be Tricky to Sustain Emotional Connections with Family and Friends
“Wait a minute, I have plenty of family and friends!” you may be saying.
But the truth is, if you’re like many of us, you’re probably not getting as much relaxation or real emotional connection out of those relationships as you could be.
And this is totally not your fault:
It’s extremely tricky to regularly sync up emotionally with the people in our lives, especially in our modern world.
Think about it:
How many of us go to church regularly and share in a joint emotional experience built around a common theme?
How often do we have big family meals free of strife and petty disagreements?
How often do we get the time to share in an exhilarating weekend excursion that isn’t overrun by stressful logistics?
If you think about it, much of the quality time we end up getting in with our family and friends is hit or miss in the same way that positive distractions are hit or miss – we need to have the time, the resources, and everything has to line up just right in order to get the benefits.
But what if there was a way to combine the at-will stress-relief of meditation with the healing power of emotional connections?
What if we could use our attention-muscles to free ourselves from stressful self-focus and experience a rejuvenating emotional connection at the same time, nearly anytime we needed it?
The Amazingly Simple (yet overlooked) Ticket to Unadulterated Joy
Luckily, there is a beautiful and simple way to combine the method and benefits of meditation with the rejuvenating power of emotional connection.
The best stress-relief tool you could ever ask for is skillful listening.
I call it The Listening Craft.
You’re probably never thought of deeply listening to another person as something that might be good for you, as a listener, before.
You may even think of it as a stressful but duty-bound inconvenience, something you offer your mother-in-law occasionally out of responsibility or pity.
But a well-honed Listening Craft allows you to – in fact requires you to – completely control your own attention, placing it squarely on something else – another person.
And by doing this, you get to fully experience their world, with them – creating a profound emotional connection.
A person well-versed in his or her Listening Craft asks all the right questions, says all the right things, and never feels burdened or scared by another person’s pain or daring enthusiasm.
The Listening Craft is a perfect example of looking at something else, with someone else, and sharing a rejuvenating emotional connection in the process.
It is also one of the most healing and profound gifts we can give another person. (And giving has its own strong links to a giver’s well-being).5
Why Even Generous People Run Away From Deep Listening
Even though our Listening Craft is a bonafide golden ticket to instant stress-relief and joy, I can anticipate you might have some understandable negative reactions to the idea at first.
You might be thinking:
What!? I am so drained! All I do is worry about other people and their needs! If anything, I need someone to listen to me!”
If I listen to other people’s problems, I won’t be able to do anything to help, and I’ll get even more depressed!!
I’m so tired of listening to people complain, they never take my advice!
People avoid deep listening because they know they will be deeply moved emotionally if another person shares intense feelings of longing, disappointment, anger, or shame.
Even positive emotions, like hope and enthusiasm, can make listeners uncomfortable:
What if someone else’s hope reminds us of our own buried dreams?
Ultimately, the most generous and loving people – the ones with the capacity to feel the deepest – are afraid they will be significantly influenced, even swallowed up by the emotions of other people.
But if you cultivate your Listening Craft, you won’t have to worry about any of these challenges ever again; you’ll be equipped with skills to heal and rejuvenate both yourself and your listening partner.
If you want to learn more about how The Listening Craft can give you unimaginable peace and even joy, I’ve prepared a step-by-step guide to having a basic deep listening conversation using your Listening Craft.
And it’s completely FREE. You can DOWNLOAD IT HERE.
The Secret to True Peace and Relaxation
Meditation gives us the ability to stop scrutinizing ourselves. But combining this ability with emotional connection is the the pinnacle of human experience.
Still skeptical that deep listening can be your ticket to true peace and relaxation?
Sometimes we just have to experience things for ourselves. So, GIVE IT A TRY!
The FREE guide will break the whole process down for you, step-by-step, and it won’t take you more than 15 minutes to have your first Listening Craft experience.
I promise you’ll love it.
What I’ve Cited in this Post:
Roberts, H., Watkins, E.R., Wills, A.J., (2013). Cueing an Unresolved Personal Goal Causes Persistent Ruminative Self-Focus: An Experimental Evaluation of Control Theories of Rumination. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 44, 449–445.
Kruse, E., Chancellor, J., Ruberton, P.M., & Lyubomirsky, S., (2014). An Upward Spiral Between Gratitudeand Humility. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5, 805-814.
Lo, C.S.L., Ho, S.M.Y., Yu, N.K.K., Siu, B.P.Y., (2014). Decentering Mediates the Effect of Ruminative and Experiential Self-Focus on Negative Thinking in Depression. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 39, 389-396.
Nelson et al., (2014). ‘It’s Up to You’: Experimentally Manipulated Autonomy Support For Prosocial Behavior Improves Well-Being in Two Cultures over Six Weeks. The Journal of Positive Psychology.
Katharine Di Cerbo left psychology research to start helping misunderstood souls enjoy more emotional connection. Download her FREE LISTENING CRAFT GUIDE to learn about how skillful listening can help you do just that.