What Are The Negative Effects of Meditation?
While there is lots of research into the positive effects of meditation, is there enough being done to find out if there are any negative effects of meditation?
There have been cases of meditation surfacing deeply buried traumatic events, becoming overly sensitive to internal and external senses, and other mental health problems.
The negative effects of meditation are likely due to a lack of understanding of the practice, choosing the wrong form of meditation for the current condition of the practitioner, and the large presence of false meditation “gurus”.
So what are the negative effects of meditation?
I’m biased… but curious
Before we go into this article, I want to make clear that I am an advocate for the benefits of meditation. I’ve gone into detail on my about page about what I went through and how meditation helped me through the darkest times of my life.
But there is a growing audience who are challenging the status quo of advocating meditation as only having positive effects.
I wanted the opportunity to look at the arguments against meditation to see what is driving the debate. Who knows, at the end of this post I may discover that the nay-sayers are right.
Hearing that meditation is bad is nothing new
When interviewed about the adverse effects of meditation, Willoughby Britton, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, said:
“[Adverse effects] were documented in Buddhist textual sources that are hundreds and hundreds of years old.” She adds, “I’m not trying to detract from the benefits. But every day, I see people that tell me, ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me this could happen?”
Why are we only now asking what are the negative effects of meditation?
The argument is that mindfulness meditation practice has recently exploded in popularity and has been marketed as a cure-all treatment. Most of the research has been around scientifically validating that it does work and that it is not just a spiritual practice. The research into any negative side effects of meditation practice hasn’t been as extensive.
Matt Hirshberg, a researcher at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison said, “With any treatment of any kind—behavioral or drug—there are two sides, what are the benefits and what are the risks of harm? The research on meditation has overwhelmingly focused on the benefits—how it works, to what extent it works, and so on.”
In a study conducted by Hirshberg and other researchers, they examined data from 2150 adult participants who took part in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) between 2002 and 2016.
The study found that compared to a control group that didn’t practice mindfulness, people that practiced mindfulness experienced fewer negative symptoms.
The negative side effects of meditation and mindfulness
The following list is of the claimed negative side effects of meditation. One thing that all researchers agree on is that there is not enough research into the reported negative effects of meditation.
As with any form of practice, medication, or treatment, if you experience any sort of distress or pain or any cause for concern, you should speak to a qualified medical or psychological professional.
Meditation can cause hypersensitivity
It can be both a blessing and a curse. As we meditate and bring our attention to the present moment, we train our minds to be more focused on the sensations we experience.
Usually, this is a wonderful experience as we perceive mundane objects and tasks like it’s the first time. “But sometimes, when you can’t stop hearing the clock ticking when you’re trying to go to sleep, that can change,” Britton says.
Meditation can surface past traumas
Part of mindfulness-based meditation is awareness of our thoughts and feeling (and then returning to the present). Normally, this is being aware of any pains in the body we may have ignored, or any day-to-day problems that we have pushed away.
Mindfulness-based meditation gives our mind space for these thoughts and feeling to surface. But for those that have experienced trauma, these thoughts and feelings can be overwhelming.
Meditation can cause anxiety and depression
Wait, what? It’s surprising to hear as the whole purpose of mindfulness is to reduce anxiety, and depression, and improve mental health. But meditators who have a history of depression or anxiety can resurface these traumatic mental health issues.
There are parts of the brain that are responsible for assessing whether the way your body is acting is natural for the environment. If you’re running up a hill your brain will notice that you are breathing heavily, you are sweating, and you have an elevated heart rate. But if you are sitting still and you are noticing the same conditions, your brain becomes alerted and worried about your condition.
But when we meditate, we can become oversensitive to these internal cues. People that are generally anxious can become more aware of these internal changes and trigger a downward spiral into anxiety.
Meditation can cause headaches and migraines
People who first start meditating think it’s an easy process of just sitting, breathing, and clearing your mind. But the effort needed to focus on the present can be quite intense.
Some meditators reported that the mental effort needed to focus on the present has the adverse side effects of headaches and migraines.
There are claims that the physical changes in the brain such as increased density and connections may have side effects that cause these headaches but there isn’t a study to confirm this.
Meditation can cause panic attacks
One of the reported adverse reactions to meditation is panic attacks. Practitioners using meditation and mindfulness can find that after an initial feeling of respite and calm, emotions that they haven’t previously had to deal with, now surface in an emotional tsunami.
Meditation can cause emotional blunting
Emotional blunting is when we feel emotionless. It’s typically found in people that have depression, and when using anti-depressants.
The theory is that where some people who have negative meditation experiences manifest this by reacting or having panic attacks, others will shut down their feelings as a self-defense mechanism.
The rise of the digital meditation guru
The explosion in popularity of western meditation also coincided with an explosion of meditation “so-called-experts”. People in pain and dealing with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues were very willing to pay to improve their health.
The mental health industry is now worth over $121 billion. With this money on the table, opportunists are promising overnight cures and spiritual awakenings in one or two sessions.
Whilst a large majority of teachers use genuine meditation techniques, there are those who haven’t meditated a minute in their life trying to teach, or worse, sell to others fake meditations.
How to avoid the negative side effects of meditation
Again, let me reiterate, if you have any concerns about your mental health, speak to a professional.
Extra care when you have a history of mental health
If you have a history of trauma, anxiety, or depression, then meditate for short periods to begin.
It’s best to practice with a qualified teacher recommended by a medical professional or psychologist.
Be cautious of retreats until you’ve become familiar with meditation
It may make sense to take part in a retreat to learn to meditate or improve your practice, but a common component found in participants that experienced the negative effects of mindfulness meditation was the length of meditation sessions.
Those who returned from long periods of meditation in retreats were more susceptible to the negative side effects. A lot of this depends on the experience of the participants. It’s always suggested to speak to the facilitator if you have any concerns before the practice.
Research your practice
Improve your knowledge of what meditation is before you start. Common with participants that reported negative effects was a different expectation of what the practice involved. Speak to others that have tried your particular meditation to understand what is involved.
Even the Buddhist Dharmatrāta Meditation Scripture states that meditation must be practiced properly. Otherwise, it will lead to a restless mind. Thoroughly research your chosen meditation and see if there is a cause for concern with your chosen practices.
Is meditation bad?
It’s not a case of ‘good and bad’ when it comes to meditation itself. It can be compared to medication – when administered correctly and in the right doses, it is effective and healing. But unlike a bottle of pills, we can’t check the side of the bottle to see a list of side effects.
Mindfulness has transformed my life for the better, and I continue to see the positive effects of every practice. But this doesn’t mean what heals me, can’t harm others. Meditation practices are thousands of years old, but research into what side effects there are is still relatively new.
If you are new to mindfulness or wondering if a different meditation may suit you better, try it in small doses.
When I arrived with this blog topic in mind, I was very opinionated on the benefits of mindfulness. But one of the tenants of mindfulness is non-judgment. Researching this blog has introduced me to the risks of meditating, and I hope it has given you more insight and perspective into the practices.
Have you experienced a side effect of meditation? Let me know in the comments.