Today, as I was browsing mindfulness topics for my next blog post, I came across one that I absolutely did not expect – negative side effects of mindfulness meditation. This made me wonder: is this based on misconceptions of what mindfulness is and what it is not? Or is it based on individual and true experiences of mindfulness meditation? I am still reading up on this fascinating, yet somewhat conflicting topic, but I decided to dedicate this post to it nonetheless. I believe we can have a truly interesting discussion about it, and it is a topic that is definitely worthy of clarification and future research.
As I read through the various media sources (click on the images above to read the original articles) discussing the negative side-effects of mindfulness, a few main arguments seemed to emerge. Several articles claimed that some individuals experienced increased stress, depression and anxiety after starting to meditate, taking a mindfulness course, or going on a meditation retreat. Other individuals felt on edge or had a headache for days after practicing mindfulness. The most serious cases included hospitalisation for depression and psychosis. This appears extremely concerning at a glance, but a deeper understanding of mindfulness (and more credible sources covering this topic) may be required to fully comprehend this issue.
Mindfulness meditation intends for the practitioner to simply observe in a non-judgemental way any thoughts or emotions that come and go through the mind, but this can be challenging when those thoughts and emotions are very strong and negative, particularly for novice practitioners. Moreover, Buddhist meditations have as an overall aim to break down barriers and illusions, allowing the meditator to see things as they really are, which makes it somewhat unsurprising that some practitioners can experience anxiety, depression, and dissociation during or following meditation. Very few of us are accustomed to sitting alone with our thoughts, and all of us are likely to have widely varying experiences with and from this activity.
Thus, I believe that a lot of the negative side-effects of mindfulness meditation stem from a lack of openness, awareness, and flexibility of one’s practice, as well as a lack of an understanding of what mindfulness is and what it is not. This creates unrealistic expectations of mindfulness, thinking that it can cure all of our problems and lead to “enlightenment”, which in turn may result in disappointment when those things do not occur. Additionally, understanding that each person’s journey is unique, we are more likely to accept any feelings and sensations that emerge, as well as be patient with ourselves and our practice. Shedding unrealistic expectations of what mindfulness can do for us, we are free to simply practice, sitting however we feel comfortable, for as long as our bodies allow us; practicing as often as we feel inclined, and at whatever time of day that suits us; and trying a variety of different types of meditation approaches, remembering that what works for others may not work for us.
The more serious side-effects of mindfulness meditation mentioned in the articles should also be taken into account, and there are several points raised in the articles above that I absolutely agree with. Firstly, we do not yet know how mindfulness really works, and I have touched upon this in previous posts. Research is urgently needed to investigate the true mechanisms of mindfulness and meditation, and to examine its pure effects. However, even research is often limited in its ability to explain the true effects of mindfulness meditation, due to its very personal, varying, and subjective experience.
Secondly, I don’t think mindfulness meditation is a “one-size-fits-all” technique, and should not be encouraged and taught as such. As I have written about previously, modern-day mindfulness has to some extent been stripped from its roots, as well as its ethical and spiritual connotations, and instead been adapted to clinical and everyday conditions. Without understanding some Buddhist concepts (for instance, that negative experiences are likely to occur during meditation practice), such side-effects may strongly discourage individuals from pursuing their practice further. Furthermore, mindfulness has become mixed and blended with other approaches, and (often) delivered in 8-week courses to the general public, with no screening process of the individuals that take part. While mindfulness teachers encourage everyone to see their own practice as an individual journey, courses do not tend to be adapted to individual needs, the participants come from varied backgrounds and experiences, and the delivery, exercises, and home practices given to all course participants are the same.
Most importantly, however, it is absolutely crucial that mindfulness teachers and instructors are properly trained in delivering mindfulness and meditation sessions, as well as trained in how to handle the negative side-effects that may emerge in some individuals. In relation to this, when starting a mindfulness practice, it would probably be beneficial to attend a course or a retreat with a trained instructor, so that some understanding of what mindfulness is and what it is not can be gained, and the potentially dangerous aspects of mindfulness practice can be avoided. Mindfulness meditation should be attempted with openness and flexibility on an individual basis, and teachers should be trained to handle the difficult emotions that are likely to occur as part of individuals dealing with their underlying problems when meditating. Beginners may be scared off at the presence of these emotions, but they are actually a natural part of meditation, and subside after some time of practice. Making instructors and students aware of the possibility of negative experiences occurring is arguably a first step to advance the delivery of mindfulness courses.
To further analyse the credibility of the various sources above, I of course consulted the scientific literature. Interestingly, I noticed a potential publication bias, in that the vast majority of published literature only discusses the positive effects of mindfulness and meditation. However, is this simply a publication bias in that negative or neutral findings are less likely to be published, or does mindfulness generally produce positive outcomes? To begin answering this question, I considered some reviews currently published on the topic of the psychological outcomes of mindfulness training.
A review of empirical studies (click on the image for source) found overall positive effects of mindfulness, “including increased subjective well-being, reduced psychological symptoms and emotional reactivity, and improved behavioral regulation” (Keng, Smoski, & Robins, 2011).
A meta-analytic review on the effects of mindfulness on anxiety and depression (click on the image for source) concluded that “mindfulness-based therapy is a promising intervention for treating anxiety and mood problems in clinical populations” (Hofmann, Sawyer, Witt, & Oh, 2010).
An empirical review on the use of mindfulness training as a clinical intervention (click on the image for source) stated that “although the current empirical literature includes many methodological flaws, findings suggest that mindfulness-based interventions may be helpful in the treatment of several disorders”, such as chronic pain, anxiety, eating disorders, and fibromyalgia (Baer, 2003).
Despite overall beneficial effects of mindfulness in clinical and non-clinical populations, research from credible sources is still lacking, particularly regarding possible negative effects of mindfulness in different populations. Additionally, the studies currently conducted are few, with varying intervention types, populations, sample size and methodological quality, and thus sometimes conflicting results. Finally, mechanisms of mindfulness are still unclear. Why does it work? How does it work? What people does it work for? When does it not work? What conditions is it best suited for? Is it better than other established treatments?
These and many more questions are vital to answer before we can promote mindfulness for everyone. Much like with anything in life, we should consider whether the positive effects outweigh the negative effects, and if this in itself makes mindfulness worth pursuing. In the meanwhile, it would perhaps be useful to make people who are interested in practicing mindfulness aware of the side-effects that may occur, especially for at-risk or vulnerable individuals. This is not to discourage people from practicing mindfulness and meditation, but rather so that their experience of it can be enhanced, and the true benefits realised.
Have you experienced any negative effects of mindfulness or meditation practice? Share your thoughts below 🙂