How to Deal with Uncomfortable Sensations During Meditation

Discomfort and pain are an inevitable part of life and something that we cannot avoid. However, while pain is unavoidable, suffering is not. So how do we deal with these uncomfortable situations, without adding unnecessary suffering to them?

Dealing with uncomfortable sensations during meditation can be difficult, but is simply a matter of persistent practice. The more you train yourself to objectively observe your experience, the easier it becomes, and the less hold these sensations have over you. A diligent attitude of acceptance is the key.

However, this is sometimes easier said than done! We are all unique, and each of us will react differently to our meditation practice. Some of us may feel scared, some may feel nauseous, while others may feel some very distressing sensations in the body. Let’s take a look at some of these situations and what to do about them.

Why Do I Feel Uncomfortable Sensations During Meditation?

The average initiation into meditation can be quite pleasant. For the first time you experience a glimpse of peace and calm. But after practicing for a while, you start coming up against some difficult feelings. Meditation has the effect of producing uncomfortable sensations in us for a number of reasons:

  • Firstly, these uncomfortable sensations we’re most likely already there, however, we weren’t paying attention to them and we’re probably trying to supress them through our various coping strategies (eating, drinking, shopping, social media etc). They were buried underneath our surface level distractions.
  • The deeper into meditation we go, the more deeply latent and subconscious stored pain is given a chance to rise to the surface of the mind. We feel this as uncomfortable sensations on the body.
  • We are also starting to confront these subconscious areas of ourselves for the first time and we don’t like what we see. These are things we’ve probably been avoiding for a while and we are not allowing our mind to run away or be distracted. The mind obviously doesn’t like this, so it tends to rebel, as it likes to stay comfortable and secure, in its familiar habit patterns. It reacts, as a way of avoidance, and these sensations can sometimes be an effect of this reaction. This is why it is common to start feeling sleepy or even restless during meditation.
  • When we meditate, we are also effectively changing ourselves – we’re reshaping neural networks and breaking down the ego – what we believe to be ourselves. No organism likes change, as this requires energy to get through. We are energy conserving machines, so we prefer a state of homeostasis. All sensations are a sign of a physical change going on in the body. The mind tends react to this change with resistance.

Let’s take a look into some of the more common discomforts that can arise during meditation.

Feelings of Pressure During Meditation

Feelings of pressure in certain areas of the body while meditating are quite common. These can occur anywhere, depending on the person, but many report feeling pressure in the chest or forehead area.

These areas are often places where our body stores tension and unprocessed emotions. When we meditate, we are giving our minds and our bodies the chance to process our thoughts, feelings and experiences, which can sometimes result as intense sensations of pressure.

The most important thing is that you do not try to stop or push away this feeling. It is your body’s natural reaction to releasing stress and tension. If you don’t allow this energy to be processed, it will stay suppressed and stuck in your body, and can lead to more serious health issues down the line.

So the objective is to try and observe the feeling of pressure exactly as it is, where ever it may be, and with an accepting and embracing attitude. Explore the pressure, investigate it. Does it have a certain shape? Is there perhaps another sensation there along with the pressure? Does it change (maybe it pulses or throbs)? Does it get weaker or stronger as you continue to observe?

This pressure will not be there forever so there is no reason to be scared of it. It will eventually dissipate, so while it is there, why not try to make friends with it? It is a part of you and after a while you might even discover it is not so bad after all.

Pain During Meditation

Pain is the universal constant of human existence. We all experience it, and for meditators it’s no different. In fact, meditation can make us sometimes notice even more pain than we thought we had. This is because during meditation, we practice the skill of awareness, and as we become more aware, we experience pain more fully. In addition to this, as we’ve learnt, meditation has the effect of releasing pain that we have stored deep within ourselves.

Don’t let this scare you. It is, in fact, exactly what we want. For we cannot grow without pain. Pain is the fuel for the fire that leads to development and growth. Almost every great figure in human history experienced immense levels of pain – it was the pain that made them who they were. We can see meditation as an accelerator of this process. A tool of self-awareness that we can use to learn and grow from our pain.

Each of us is different, and pain will appear for different reasons in different areas of the body for each of us. For some of us it may be in the back, for others in the knees or legs. It really doesn’t matter where, nor the reason for the pain – the instructions to dealing with pain are the same.

When pain arises, try to observe the feeling of the pain, where ever it may be, with an accepting and embracing attitude. Just keep your awareness on it and explore the pain with a sense of curiosity. Investigate it.

Is there perhaps another more specific sensation underneath what you call ‘pain’? Is there a tingling, a numbness, heat, a vibration? Does it change (maybe it pulses or throbs)? Does it get weaker or stronger as you continue to observe? Does it have a certain shape? Is there an epicentre for the pain? Does the epicentre change?

Try to see the pain for what it is, without judgment or interpretation.

Observing the pain, be aware that it will not be there forever. Like all things, it is impermanent. In doing this, we change the mind’s underlying habitual tendencies from being reactive to that of equanimity – an extremely calm and peaceful state of mind. We short-circuit this tendency to push away pain and instead, accept it for what it is, freeing ourselves from its hold over us. This takes time and practice though. Don’t expect it to happen overnight. But keep trying.

If the pain is too difficult to observe directly, you can always practice breathing meditation and focus on your breath for a while. This will help balance the mind while still keeping you aware of the present moment. If you’d like to find out how to practice this, you can read my post on Calm-Abiding meditation.

If the pain just gets way too intense to handle, always feel free to change to a more comfortable sitting posture. Experiment and find out what works best for you.

Uncomfortable Energy in the Body During Meditation

During meditation, you may sometimes feel what you could refer to as ‘uncomfortable energy’ or a general sense of discomfort in the body. This can manifest in many ways and usually results in agitation, fear, doubt or the inability to sit still for very long without getting up and quitting.

This is very common for beginners who do not yet have the distinct awareness to identify and explore the specific sensations that comprise this uncomfortable energy. There will always be an underlying distinct sensation beneath this energy – a heaviness, lightness, numbness, pressure, tightness, throbbing, tingling, vibrating, heat or even coolness. It could be anything.

There is also usually a specific location from where this uncomfortable energy emanates. If you look close enough, you may see that it perhaps comes from the general area of the chest, the stomach, or the head. Then see if you can get even more specific with its location and recognise where it feels strongest.

Try to observe and recognise the specific sensations underlying this energy, whatever they may be. While you may refer to this feeling as ‘energy’, it is simply a concoction of physical bodily sensations. And again, you are training the mind to be comfortable with these sensations so they have less and less control over you. Keep trying, over and over again, to accept and embrace this feeling with patience and diligence.

Explore the sensations, investigate them. Do they have a certain shape? Is there perhaps a mixture of different sensations there along with the ‘uncomfortable energy’? Is there an epicentre where the sensations are strongest? Does this change over time? Do they get weaker or stronger as you continue to observe?

Again, you should recognise that this uncomfortable energy will not be there forever so there is no reason to be scared of it. It is just a bunch of physical sensations that are continuously changing, and with no real power over you.

Why Do I Get/Feel Scared During Meditation?

Feelings of fear during meditation naturally come as a direct result of facing worry, uncertainty, anxiety and even our longings. When we meditate, we come face to face with some of our deepest fears and desires, without a clear avenue to run away from them. Fear is the mind’s natural reaction to this situation.

Try to think of anyone other time you’ve felt scared in your life. Maybe it was a scary movie. Perhaps a situation at work or even just a general fear about the safety of your loved ones. What exactly did you feel? A constriction in the throat or tightness in the chest? Butterflies in your stomach or light-headedness? After all, fear is just a combination of physical sensations we feel that are designed to make us act.

Fear is the body’s natural response to perceived danger. When our amygdala interprets a situation as threatening, it floods our bodies with chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol, supercharging our nervous systems to be ready to take action. This proved invaluable throughout our evolutionary history, when we had to respond quickly to threats, by either fighting or running away.

Fortunately for us, today the world is a much less dangerous place. Unfortunately, these responses have been fine-tuned over millions of years of evolution, and the world is changing so fast that the evolution of the brain has not had a chance to catch up.

Fortunately for the vast majority of us, we don’t have to face regular life-threatening situations anymore.

In today’s world, we perceive far too many things as a threat to our survival. This occurs in our internal world too – where our mind is constantly subconsciously interpreting internal signals. We think that feeling in the pit of our stomach means we’re losing control and our world is falling in around us. We think that the tightness in our chest or throat means we are just not doing good enough or are unworthy. We have these fearful thoughts whirling around in our heads, which cause our feelings or sensations to get stronger and stronger – a self-perpetuating spiral of fear.

These thoughts and feelings of fear are in response to what are just physical, impersonal bodily sensations. We just attach meaning to sensations unnecessarily, to justify why we should feel scared. It’s time to break this unhelpful cycle.

As with all other feelings and sensations, the strategy to deal with feeling fearful during meditation is the same. As you sit, try to objectively observe the thing you are scared of. This may initially be a thought or general ‘feeling’ but as you observe closely you will find out that you are experiencing certain physical sensations somewhere on your body, which you interpret that you are scared of. You may think you are scared of a situation and your thoughts of impending doom but you are actually scared of the physical sensations you are experiencing. When these sensations are no longer there, you don’t feel scared anymore.

So your aim then is to be comfortable with these feelings. After all, they are a part of you. Your job is to see them for what they are, and embrace them. Right now, you are not comfortable with them, and you want to run away from them.

Gently explore and investigate the sensations you are feeling on whichever part of the body they occur. Every time your mind wanders away to another fearful thought, gently come back to that part of the body you are observing. Do this over and over again, with an open and accepting attitude.

Over time, you will find that these feelings have less and less control over you. They will get weaker and weaker, and will be able to act more and more without their influence over you. They may sometimes appear here and there, but that is okay – because you simply accept them for what they are – impersonal, impermanent physical sensations that come and go, like clouds in a clear blue sky.

Why Do I Feel Nauseous During Meditation?

Since meditation leads one to directly confront supressed feelings and emotions, for some people, the body reacts to this with feelings of nauseousness, particularly if one is not used to this direct confrontation. It can be a natural response to agitation and discomfort.

In order to escape facing these emotions, the body and mind produce all kinds of reactions – restlessness, fidgeting, sleepiness, doubt (this is not working or I’m no good at this), fear, nauseousness, or even a pleasurable feeling of craving for something (how good is dinner going to…how good would my life be with X man or Y woman). We are all different so will respond differently to meditation. Some will get really sleepy, some will get restless while others may start to feel nauseous.

Nauseousness can be quite an intense feeling, so first and foremost it is important to remember to take it easy with your meditation sessions. Stop practicing for a few minues, then try again when you are comfortable. While you have to eventually confront and explore yourself, it is better to do this slowly.

If you start feeling nauseous during meditation, you can also try to observe your breathing for a while. Breath-focused practices can induce a relaxation response in the body and mind, and make it much easier to stay in the present moment. Again, if you’d like to find out how to practice this, you can read my post on Calm-Abiding meditation.

Feeling Cold During Meditation

Temperature changes during meditation are quite common and are a result of the physiological responses going on in the body in response to the relaxation and calming effects of meditation.

When we meditate, a number of physiological processes take place. Our breath slows, along with our heart rate. Our parasympathetic nervous system gets activated, stopping the release of cortisol and adrenaline into the body. This is effectively a ‘healing’ process – most evident in the fact that meditation has been shown to increase levels of immunity and gut health.

The chemical changes within our body naturally result in temperature changes, as the body gets to work on the healing process. For some of us, especially those who are used to being constantly on the move, the body’s temperature finally has a chance to decrease. On top of this, we are also more aware of our internal processes, so we actually notice that we are feeling cold. Whereas, previously we might have distracted ourselves and not even noticed that we were feeling cold.

If you are constantly feeling cold during meditation, make sure your clothes are warm enough or use a shawl to cover yourself. Your practice shouldn’t be a masochistic torture contest. You need to be comfortable when you are sitting so you can focus on the task at hand. As you practice more, you will naturally develop increased equanimity towards discomfort.

Why Do I Get Hot or Sweat While Meditating?

On the other hand, some of us may feel hot or even sweat whilst meditating. While meditation has relaxing effects on the mind and body, it can also stir up deep and unprocessed emotions. These can sometimes surface as heat in the body. Have you ever noticed how when you get nervous, you sometimes start to sweat? As we meditate more and more, sometimes difficult emotions come to the surface, and this can have the same effect on us. Our heart rate and breathing quicken as we start to feel uncomfortable.

However, as with all feelings, these will eventually pass. After a while, your body and mind will come back to equilibrium and your temperature should stabilise. If you are always feeling hot during meditation, this is going to be something you are just going to have to accept. You will have to ‘sweat it out’, unfortunately. After a certain amount of time, perhaps even weeks or months (of course, everyone is different), your body will adjust to the process, and you would have worked through some of your more gross emotions that are causing this heat.

Make sure you find a place where you are protected from the elements

Again, start with some more practical solutions to this issue such as sitting in comfortable loose clothing and choosing a cool room to meditate in. Also ensure that there is a reasonable level of some air circulation.

Stay aware, equanimous and don’t worry – everything is fine!

Josip Puric

Josip is an accredited meditation teacher specialising in mindfulness and insight meditation, including breath practices. His extensive meditation study and practice has led him to profound insights about the nature of ourselves as human beings. His only aspiration, is to share this experiential wisdom for the benefit of all.

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