Stress, anxiety, productivity: mindfulness is often touted as a solution to nearly everything. But research shows that you can actually take meditation too far.
For around 20 years, I’ve struggled with periods of anxiety, and turned to mindfulness meditation as a means of quelling those feelings. At its best, the benefits would often perfectly match the hype. Focusing my attention on my breath or my body would calm my nagging internal voice, and I’d return to normal life feeling energized and invigorated, reports BBC.
Far too often, however, I’d end the session feeling much worse than when I began. Rather than relaxing, my heart would begin to accelerate, or my inner monologue would take a nasty turn, as unpleasant memories and feelings of failure and hopelessness flooded my mind. These events became so frequent that I now only use mindfulness occasionally.
I had assumed that I was just uniquely bad at taming my thoughts. Yet a growing body of research suggests that such stories may be surprisingly common, with one study from 2019 showing that at least 25% of regular meditators have experienced adverse events, from panic attacks and depression to an unsettling sense of “dissociation”.
Given these reports, one researcher has even founded a non-profit organisation, Cheetah House, that offers support to ‘meditators in distress’. “We had more that 20,000 people contact us in the year 2020,” says Willoughby Britton, who is an assistant professor in psychiatry and human behaviour at Brown University. “This is a big problem.”
How could something that is apparently so beneficial for so many people turn out to have such disturbing effects for others? And are there any ways to gain the benefits of meditation without running into these risks?
‘You can only crank up your attention dial so far’
In any discussion of mindfulness, it’s important to remember that there are many different techniques that train particular types of thinking and being. The best-known strategies are mindful breathing, in which you focus on the feelings of respiration, and the body scan, in which you pass your attention from head to toe, noting any physical sensations that arise in the course of the session.
These kinds of practices are meant to ground you in the present moment and the effects can be seen in brain scans, with growth in the insula cortex, a region that is involved in bodily perception and emotion. As a result, mindfulness training can leave us more in touch with our feelings, which is important for good decision making. Many mindfulness practices also encourage a more general “observing awareness”, in which you train yourself to notice your thoughts and feelings without reacting or judging. With practice, this can increase your capacity for emotional regulation so that you are no longer as susceptible to flashes of anger, for instance.
Ideally, these changes should complement each other and result in greater wellbeing. But that’s only possible if they occur in balance and moderation. Unfortunately, some meditators may pass the optimum point on either one of these elements, leading to distress.
The bigger picture
Still, mindfulness does appear to benefit many people.
“Probably, for the average person, it can help with mental health promotion,” says Julieta Galante at the University of Cambridge, who recently conducted a meta-analysis reviewing the evidence to date. Overall, she found that there was a positive effect, though there was large variation between studies. Like Britton, she thinks that we need more nuance in our understanding of the specific situations in which mindfulness may or may not be useful, alongside a greater investigation of the potential adverse effects.
What can we do if our own mindfulness practice is no longer working as anticipated? Galante’s meta-analysis showed that in many cases, mindfulness was no better for mental health than many other positive interventions, like physical exercise. In which case, the simplest option may be to switch to another activity that is also known to boost your overall wellbeing.
David Robson is the is author of The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things (Hodder & Stoughton/WW Norton). He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.