Meditation Really Freaks Some People Out, Study Finds

Photo: Lynne Sladky, AP

One of the most stereotypical relaxing things to do — meditation — may actually cause distress for some people, according to the findings of a survey released this week. It found that more than a quarter of regular meditators have had bad experiences related to their meditation.

Plenty of research has looked into the potential benefits of meditation and similar mindfulness techniques. And while meditation can be overhyped or used to sell horrible trendy products, it does seem to help some people with anxiety, depression or insomnia.

But there’s been considerably less focus paid to potential harms of meditation, even as some research has hinted that it can be linked to episodes of fear, suicide ideation and psychosis, particularly in people who are already struggling with their mental health.

The researchers behind this study, published in PLOS One, conducted an online survey of more than 1200 adults who described themselves as regular meditators, meaning they had practised at least once a week for at least two months.

Of these, 25.6 per cent responded yes when they were asked if they had ever had “particularly unpleasant experiences” that they thought were potentially caused by their meditation. While the survey didn’t ask which specific bad experiences these people could have had, examples provided to them included anxiety, fear and an altered sense of the world or themselves.

The authors say their study highlights the importance of more research into the bad and good of meditation, though they warn against reading too much into their findings.

“It is important at this point not to draw premature conclusions about the potential negative effects of meditation,” lead author Marco Schlosser, a researcher at University College London’s Division of Psychiatry said in a statement.

That said, there were some interesting patterns Schlosser and his team noticed in terms of who might be more at risk. Men were more likely to report bad experiences, as were people who were less religious.

People who went on a meditation retreat or who only practised deconstructive meditation, which asks people to rethink the way they see themselves and the world, were also more likely to report an unpleasant experience.

But it isn’t just meditation that’s under-studied. The authors noted that there’s also been relatively little research into how more traditional behavioural interventions, such as therapy and counselling, can sometimes negatively affect people.

In any case, what’s needed is research that encompasses the wide range of therapeutic and meditation practices used, the reasons why people turn to them, and the factors that might make people less suitable for them.

“Longitudinal studies will help to learn when, for whom, and under what circumstances these unpleasant experiences arise, and whether they can have long-term effects,” said Schlosser. “This future research could inform clinical guidelines, mindfulness manuals and meditation teacher training.”

So if the thought of sitting quietly with no distractions sounds like torture, don’t feel too bad — you’re far from the only person who needs a little mindlessness to wind down.

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