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.
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.
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
- Double vision
- Feelings of anxiety, including
- Panic and/or tension
- Feelings of dissociation, including
- Feelings of meditation “addiction”
- Reports of pain
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.