Opinion

Meditation Adverse Effects

I was introduced to mindfulness meditation in 2016 by my friend and business partner at Nossa Labs Flavio Rump. He has been practicing mindfulness meditation for some years and had already been to a couple of meditation retreats. I decided to give a try despite the fact that I always thought that this “whole meditation thing was a bit hocus pocus”. After been guided in a few sessions by Flavio and sometimes using apps I started to enjoy meditating. I subscribed to 10% Happier and have been using the app almost on a daily basis. I calmed myself down a bit and was able to understand that I could tackle my obstacles one by one without feeling anxious about them.

And let me tell you something: feeling less anxious is great! Being calmer gives me more room to think thoroughly about the issues and ultimately get closer to better outcomes. However, besides feeling calmer I also felt that I lost a bit of my drive, a bit of the urge I had in the past to do stuff – as if I had normalized my emotions: I don’t feel that sad anymore but also not that happy as well. I am not sure this change is due to meditation or if it is happening because I am simply getting older and more experienced (I’m now 40 years old). Anyway, I decided to research the side-effects from meditation. Turns out, some people are also studying this and I will try to summarize some of the conclusions were made about how meditation can be harmful to some people.

Mindfulness is becoming increasingly popular

Before we get to the potential negative effects meditation could give us, I would like to give some sense on how popular mindfulness has become. Below we can see the interest for Mindfulness in Google searches grew over four-fold since 2004.

 

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Google Trends for “mindfulness” since 2004.

 

There are hundreds of Apps about mindfulness and meditation available for iOS and Android. The most prominent app is Headspace – the company claims to have over 3 million users in over 150 countries and raised $30 million in their last round of financing. Other relevant players Calm.com and the already mentioned 10% Happier, which is based on the book by Dan Harris 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.

Many companies such as Google, Ford and Target have also embraced mindfulness. According to the author David Gelles on his book Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out, meditation improves employee performance and thus increases company’s profitability.

Not only businesses have been created around meditation and mindfulness but the subject is also popular within the academia. A quick search for “meditation” in Google Scholar returns 114,000 articles, with a steady growth as you can see on the chart below.

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Is mindfulness a mere hype or it is really beneficial for everyone?

Indeed, mindfulness became a mainstream movement because it has been able to help improving the lives of meditators. According to an extensive meta-analysis performed by Madhav Goyal, Sonal Singh, Erica M. S. Sibinga, and others, mindfulness meditation has moderate positive effects for reducing anxiety and depression and low effects for reducing stress and improving quality of life. After reviewing almost 19 thousand studies, they discarded 97% of them for being performed without scientific rigour. Meaning that only 47 studies were Randomized Controlled Trials, had been performed in adults, compared the the effects with a control group over a certain long period of time (Longitudinal Studies). So,  yes, mindfulness meditation is beneficial to people, albeit not as a silver-bullet as many bloggers and journalists promote.

Now, the hidden secret about meditation that almost no one talks about: Meditation can be dangerous to some people.

According to Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D, mindful-based interventions can be indeed harmful if practiced without proper supervision. The authors note that, although mindfulness meditation derives from Buddhist practice and has been practiced for over 2500 years, there are no dedicated regulation nor accreditation bodies to guarantee that instructors have a minimum knowledge on the subject. Basically, anyone can claim to be a meditation teacher and incorrectly guide others. What to say about meditation apps then? If instructors can teach mindfulness in a wrong way, meditation apps can be risky as they offer a completely unsupervised practice.

Other authors and researchers also studied possible adverse effects from meditation and mindfulness. According to Deane Shapiro from the University of California Irvine, almost 2/3rd of people that went to a meditation retreat reported at least one negative effect from meditation and some even mentioned serious adverse effects such as panic attacks, depression and anxiety. Important note: this study was performed on a very small sample (N=27) . However, at Just Neurons we still believe that even if only a few people reported suffering after meditation, this is already enough to be concerned about the dangerous aspects of meditations.

There are small signs of more critical voices becoming more mainstream. Psychologists Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm have written the book The Buddha Pill, where they talk about the lack of research about the potential adverse effects meditation can cause.

According to research, what are the most common negative side effects from meditation?

There is very little data on how frequent adverse effects occur, however, these are the most common negative effects people can get from meditating:

  • Feelings of depression, including
    • Decreased life motivation/boredom
    • Increased negativity/self-judgment
  • Feelings of depersonalization and derealization, including
    • Autoscopy
    • Double vision
    • Grandiosity/elation
  • Feelings of anxiety, including
    • Panic and/or tension
  • Feelings of dissociation, including
    • Disorientation/confusion
  • Feelings of meditation “addiction”
  • Reports of pain
  • Hallucinations

Why is there so little research about the negative side effects?

There are many more scientific papers that show benefits of meditation than ones that talk about negative effects. Here are the main reasons we believe this is the case

  • Researchers have a bias to design their experiments in order to prove their hypotheses, as we presented in our inaugural article article.
  • Patients themselves don’t want to ‘disappoint’ the caring researchers and may chose to under-report any negative side effects. See Demand Characteristics and Observer Expectancy Effect for more.

We believe human beings are always looking for a way to become happier. There is something about meditation ‘intuitively’ feels right. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could reduce our suffering by sitting and observing our breath for a few minutes a day? Since we all want to believe this to be true, we end up conducting studies to validate our intuition. It is rather uncomfortable to talk about negative effects to a tool that seems to provide so much relief. Unfortunately, this bias affects everyone, including esteemed researchers.

There’s no shame in giving up on meditation if it does not make you feel well.

Some people tend to feel somehow “forced” to meditate since mindfulness is so mainstream now, with so many books, articles and people talking about it. Some people even stick with meditation even not feeling well, as if they are not feeling well while meditating because they are doing something wrong and they should meditate even more to finally get better. No one should force herself to meditate if doing so increases suffering instead of reducing it, which is one of buddhism’s main objectives. In fact, we should not forget that there are many paths to well-being like exercising or conducting other behavioral therapies.

So, should we meditate or not?

Overall, I still feel like meditation is an invaluable tool to be connected with yourself, see the impermanent nature of emotions and thoughts and create space between stimulus and reaction. in other words, when something difficult arises, you don’t take action that creates more harm but can choose a wise (non)action. Again, as the comprehensive meta-analysis made by Madhav Goyal and others, there are proven beneficial effects one can get from meditation.

My recommendation is to start meditating under the guidance of an experienced meditator or teacher. If you had any prior mental condition such as depression, trauma or PTSD, please avoid unsupervised meditation and look for some well-known meditation teacher or therapist to guide you. If you want to give a try on one of the meditation apps, start with around 10 minutes a day and keep practicing only if you are still feeling well. Remember: meditation is not a panacea and is not indicated for everyone.

 

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Opinion

What Brazil and US elections had in common – Facebook’s role

I moved to America at the end of 2014 to pursue happiness, not just for me but mostly for my family. Since 2003 I’ve been seeing someone I don’t support being elected for presidency in Brazil. In fact, I just realized that in my whole life just twice I voted for someone that got elected president. Being so different from the majority of the population is something hard to cope with.

My wife and I decided to leave Brazil as, after over a decade of bad policies in all areas we realized that things were not changing at a pace that could justify us to stay. Since we were kids we were “thought” that Brazil was the country of the future, like a sleeping giant that one day would wake up for its grandiosity. We thought that in 2012 that future was finally happening. Brazil’s GDP grew by over 7% that year, 30 million people got out of poverty as the country had a massive influx of people in the workforce and was surfing the wave of commodities, plus a massive oil reserve was found. The international recognition came as Brazil was picked to be the host of two major global events (summer Olympics and Soccer World Cup). The Economist cover featured the Christ Redeemer statue flying as a rocket. But a mere couple of years later the rocket was landing forcefully and everyone was bracing for impact.

This frustration proved to be too hard for me and my wife and we concluded that Brazil would never progress at a pace that anyone of my family could ever benefit from. As my great grandfather did while moving from Italy to Brazil back in the early nineteen hundreds, I realized I have one life to live and I don’t want to waste it in a country where people don’t agree with the way I think and don’t appreciate my contributions. I’m tired to do my best and see that it’s never enough to make a change. I voted, I paid huge taxes, all for nothing. I want to offer a brighter future to my kids and an environment where they can prosper and be free to pursue their passions and dreams. That’s my duty as a responsible parent.

Don’t get me wrong. I miss Brazil, I miss my friends and the stuff I know and I’m comfortable with. It’s sad that my Brazilian culture will not be fully passed on to my kids and will die with me. My references are different from yours. You know that joke you’ve been hearing since you were a kid? My jokes are all from the TV shows, folklore, lullabies I was exposed to when I was little in Brazil. My sense of humor is quite different from yours and I start seeing this with my daughters and their jokes. They are absorbing America’s culture and will have a different background than mine. Hopefully, I’ll be able to inject a bit of Brazilian influence but even the Portuguese language they are starting to lose.

As people who adopt children, my love for America wasn’t inherited – I picked America because I wanted to. Even though I’m also European and could move to Europe I believe in the American Dream. Despite all the difficulties, America is the place my wife and I chose to work, prosper, raise our kids. Is the place we want to get old and die. We had and have other opportunities but we left our comfort zone and moved to America because we believe this is the best place to live.

Have been experiencing frustration with presidential elections for almost all my life, I want to calm down my friends that are worried about Trump’s election. Guys, America is the best place on earth – has solid institutions, bright minds and an ever-boosting economy. America is much bigger than any person that may take the office. We will thrive. Always. We might zig-zag a bit but I truly believe we will always move forward.

My friends didn’t expect that Hillary wouldn’t be elected. Here in San Francisco Bay Are where I live, almost everyone is Democrat, supported Hillary and criticized Trump’s lack of concrete program and his personal behavior towards women and minorities.

That being said, even though almost all the media and all polls also didn’t anticipate Trump’s victory, I still think the surprise my friends felt was amplified by Facebook. Facebook’s immense scale makes us think that our activities inside its platform replicate our real lives but in reality, our virtual relations are dictated by how Facebook works.

You see, we all tend to live and have relationships with people that think like us. That’s why, if we can, we move to a neighborhood or city where we feel comfortable living close to people that are also like us. This is a conscious decision we make. In Facebook, we know that we invite friends to be part of our network and the posts they write are theirs. Again, most of our friends think like us so we see posts that in general share our own beliefs.

However, Facebook morphed to become a news aggregator and after a while, our news feeds started to show all sorts of, er, news and supposedly unbiased content. So if I liked the New York Times or Techcrunch, I can see in my news feed posts these outlets write about their articles. However, on a daily basis, I also find several posts citing articles from dubious sources being liked and shared by people the same way articles from reputable outlets. Plus, advertisers can target me as an audience that likes Techcrunch to sponsor a post about anything they want. Facebook then push these dubious articles as they generate engagement and or revenue. And the cycle goes on with people believing in stories without giving any thought on its veracity.

Political campaigns explore this Facebook flaw. As people don’t want and don’t care to fact check what candidates claim, we have all sorts of untrue, biased and dubious content being shared and propagated within Facebook. People that want to believe or already do believe in what is being shared get their beliefs reaffirmed. We pick friends that are trustworthy and thus we trust what they write and talk about. Facebook’s eager to generate engagement can cause us to mistakenly think that what is presented in our news feed is also trustworthy content, endorsed by our friends and mixed with content our friends write themselves.

Another problem with Facebook is that we believe we are discussing politics by writing a post and getting likes from our friends. Sorry to inform you that Facebook was never made to foster political discussions but, again, to generate post engagements and revenue (with engagement they can sell more ads).

I saw in Brazilian’s last presidential elections the same behavior I just saw again in ours. I couldn’t find a single Facebook post with contrarian view compared to mine. With the exception of my sister who has opposite political views in Brazil and a close friend here, all Facebook posts in my news feed were containing comments that I somehow already agreed with. My sister’s newsfeed was totally different, though: all she saw were posts from friends and media outlets she agrees with.

As a result, Facebook’s algorithm is creating polarizing echo-chambers. We believe we’re talking politics on Facebook but the truth is that we just engage with people that already share our current political views. By liking and getting likes on posts with our beliefs we just reinforce what we think. We now believe that everyone we know thinks like us and when we meet anyone that thinks differently it becomes an unpleasant surprise. In our minds, as so many people think like us that it’s not possible that we could be wrong. We are not prepared to discuss with people with contrarian views anymore. We don’t respect contrarian views anymore. We’re all becoming radicals and Facebook is partially responsible for that.

It’s time for us to wake up. We need to have a better place to discuss politics than Facebook. We need to appreciate the contrarian view and understand that people usually act in good faith and share the same end goal as us. We need to agree that although we might have different views, we all look for a brighter future. We need to find a way to listen to the other side independently from Facebook likes. Ultimately, we need to respect each other’s point of view, even if we disagree. As someone who moved to America to pursue happiness, I still believe that respect and honesty are inherent qualities of the American people. I hope with Trump we don’t become more radicals and we can coexist with different opinions. I hope to have made a good choice moving to America.

I’m not alone on criticizing Facebook. Read this article from Mashable and this one from Techcrunch  about Facebooks role in the US presidential election.

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