Side effects of meditation: be warned!

In the professional medical world, Medscape is probably the most trusted up to date online resource. I am delighted to see that yesterday they published an article that highlights some of the more challenging and distressing aspects of meditation based on a recent scientific paper in PLOS One.

The reason I am so glad is that it means we’re moving to a different approach to meditation, one with more well-warranted rigour in how people talk about this intervention and away from the perception that this is something without side-effects.

Crux of the study:

  • the challenging aspects of Buddhist-derived meditation practices are well described in Buddhist tradition but are less so in Western scientific literature
  • the researchers interviewed nearly 100 meditators and meditation teachers from each of three main traditions: Theravāda, Zen, and Tibetan.dangers of meditation, side effects of mindfulness
  • the researchers developed a taxonomy of 59 experiences organised into seven domains: cognitive, perceptual, affective (emotions and moods), somatic (relating to the body), conative (motivation or will), sense of self, and social.
  • all meditators reported multiple unexpected experiences across the seven domains of experience. 
  • the duration of the effects people described in their interviews varied widely, ranging from a few days to months to more than a decade, the investigators report.
  • some meditators reported their feelings, even the desirable ones, went too far or lasted too long, or they felt violated, exposed, or disoriented. 
  • meditation experiences that felt positive during retreats sometimes persisted and interfered with their ability to function or work when they left the retreat and returned to normal life.
  • the meditator’s practice intensity, psychiatric history, trauma history and the quality of supervision are important factors that influence the meditators experience, but not for everyone.factors that influence quality of meditation
  • the study highlights that the one size fits all approach isn’t ideal: “The good news is that there are many different programs out there and different practices available, and with a little bit of homework and informed shopping, someone could find a really good match for what they are after,” she said. “But I think often people just sign up for whatever is the most convenient or the best marketed, and it’s not always a good match for their constitution or their goals.”

Dissecting the side effects 

Here are the reported side effects with the percentage of people who reported them in brackets:

side effects of meditation cognitive, perceptual, affective, somatic, sense of self, social

It’s fascinating to note that nearly 50% noted a change in worldview. Open mind, new philosophy – fair enough. I would be on the fence about saying that I have a different world view because of meditation. It’s clearer, it’s calmer, it’s more adaptable, but it’s not really changed. Thus, it is possible that people who try to meditate are often looking for a new worldview or are quite suggestible.

Nearly the same number of people reported delusional, irrational and paranormal beliefs! I guess this is all based on Buddhism and there is a strong religious element to it. However, people were clearly made uncomfortable by it. I certainly experienced this: this is why I tread carefully when I go exploring meditation resources. A huge number of them are zealous, either for reasons of unquestioning devotion, or commercial ones. Snake oil requires faith.

Again, over 40% reported hallucinations. Just as a reminder – delusions and hallucinations are the key ingredients of psychosis and good reason to admit someone to a psychiatric ward. Obviously, these must not be quite as persistent as those associated with psychiatric disease, but if I had seen this table before starting mindfulness, I would have thought much more carefully. In this sample, 32% of people had a prior psychiatric history. This doesn’t explain how common all these DSM-sounding symptoms are among them.

Fear, anxiety, panic or paranoia came up for over 80% of people. I think is more a reflection on the sample than on meditation. Why to people meditate? Often they come upon it as a cure for anxiety. Indeed, in my experience, besides actually getting rid of the anxiogenic stimulus, meditation is a great method to deal with it. Depression was very common too at over 50%. Anhedonia and avolition – being unable to experience pleasure and not having any desire to do anything – are hallmarks of depression and were experienced by 18%. Personally, anxiety has always accompanied meditation in some way or another, but not in a bad way. It’s a little bit like saying that exercise cause shortness of breath. However, panic and paranoia are step to far.

Where there are mood changes, there are autonomic function changes and indeed they seem to have been affected too: level of energy, quality of sleep, appetite, etc. It’s unfortunate to note that many of those changes were negative with common reports of fatigue and pain.

As expected, 75% of meditators had their mind bent by Buddhist approaches to the self. We also know from MRI studies, that the anatomical self, seated in default mode network is modified by meditation, so this is expected.

Clarity, meta-cognition and increased cognitive processing – that’s our thinking clearly box ticked.

What does all of this mean?

To meditate or not? Meditate, but proceed with caution, a healthy balance of open-mindedness and scepticism – and preferably with supervision. In the words of Dr Walsh, it’s important to be challenged, but not overwhelmed.

As for me, I often take breaks from meditation. If it’s not happening, I don’t force myself too much. Thirty seconds of mindfulness is better than ten minutes of desperate striving effort and then feeling exposed, lonely and inadequate. To give it a Buddhist twist, we can think of the experience as if it is the weather. You may have decided that you are jogging today, but if it is stormy outside, it’s better to be a bit more adaptable, stay at home and practice your planks. Same here.

Reference:

Lindahl JR, Fisher NE, Cooper DJ, Rosen RK, Britton WB (2017) The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0176239. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176239

P.S. Have a look at this Christian blogger explaining the emotional conflict she experienced when exploring yoga. It’s not important to be religious to understand that imposing one system of beliefs over another, whatever it may be, can be highly distressing.

negative effects of meditation
Just a picture of Dublin in the sun

 

33 Comments Add yours

  1. Steve Ruis says:

    Wow, blockbuster post! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Steve, you are too kind! Thank you. The researchers are the real heroes here.

      Like

  2. brenda says:

    My readings of Buddhist literature have noted the importance of a meditation teacher as well as outlining the potential for harm within meditation. Yet, before I retired I was not aware of any educational/training guidelines for “non-buddhist” professional organizations in regards to facilitating mindfulness/meditation programs. As I reflect back upon the history of psychology there is often times a grasping for a “fit-all” theory that flows into popular psychology with the outflow of unintentional harm.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed! Always read the label, as they say. I learnt about mindfulness in an academic setting – and even then there was no mention of side effects. Quite disappointing really, isn’t it?

      Liked by 2 people

  3. E says:

    Same here, thank you, much appreciated!
    Elisabeth

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Anony Mole says:

    Thanks for this. Mediation has side-effects: who knew?

    What I was struck by was that list. Whoa, are humans complex or what! Criminy, we can’t even sit calmly under a tree in a meadow without experiencing psychological (or somatic) side-effects. Sheesh — we’re a mess. (But you’re much less of one Martina…)

    Here’s a question for ya: we’ve discussed walking as the means to psychological awareness and balance. From what I know of meditation, you have to sit still. Are there formal meditations through walking?

    Like

    1. I was fascinated by that same thing. Thanks for presuming the best of me, I guess it ebbs and flows.

      I know that a lot of MBSR retreats use walking meditation and it’s discussed by psychiatrists. Whether it goes back to the roots of the underlying philosophy, I don’t know. Frankly, I am more interested in what works than what’s prescribed!

      I am excited to learn more about the trial and tribulations of Anony Mole, the fiction writer!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Anony Mole says:

        Early on in my internet career (now going on 23 years — yes, I’ve been working the web for 23 years…) I adopted an open profile. I soon found that some of my opinions were counter intuitive vis-a-vis work, extended family, and so assume a set of what I call netdonyms. Knowing they would never be fully divorced from my actual persona, I haven’t fervently tried to keep them separate from my actual self. So, were one to assume a sleuthing mindset, one might locate my actual persona, under which I’ve begun to release a bevy of short stories in my pursuit of craft excellence. [insert sly grin here.] Call it a puzzle of sorts.

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      2. Haha, I will try and sniff them out 🙂 Sure, it wouldn’t be any fun if you told me lol

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Anony Mole says:

        Realize that, although I tried to “own” these monikers, I rarely could do so outright. There are no doubt now thousands of holes through which a name might be pressed or abused. Cave Canem.

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      4. Anony Mole says:

        Any luck in your sleuthing? Of course, a good Sherlock would keep their results to themselves…

        Like

  5. Thanks for sharing the interesting perspective.

    I’ve discovered that most of the Buddhist cultures are religious and superstitious despite that the Buddhist philosophy does not really encourage that. Critical reading and thinking skills come useful when looking for a suitable meditation practice.

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    1. I agree Janne! I think that Buddhism encourages people to be extremely open-minded, but realistically it’s not in line with human nature. We all default to certain beliefs, so like you said, critical thinking is a must

      Liked by 1 person

    2. guybon says:

      I have no personal knowledge of the Buddhist culture. But other religion have their faults too. So I am not surprised. But their is a general view that Buddhism is not superstitious.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. chooweichieh says:

    Great post!

    The majority of ‘adverse’ effects happened under pretty intensive circumstances. 72% occurred during a retreat, and 75% had >1h practice per day.

    In the MBSR classes that I have run, plenty of people have difficulty doing the home practice of 45min per day. Furthermore, students with active psychiatric conditions/ ongoing or recent addiction issues are actively screened for prior to starting the class.

    So at least for people wanting to start the practice in this way, the risk would be well contained.

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    1. Absolutely! I think though a lot of people think that it’s their fault as they don’t expect “side effects” and you know where that leads!

      Thanks for stopping by! It’s always great to connect with physicians with an interest in mindfulness!

      Like

  7. Mr. Mel says:

    Very interesting post. In my meditation (22years) practiced I have read books and article on how to but have never sought out a teacher. I am not religious but consider myself spiritual and I have never experienced any side effects. Could it be the power of suggest that may be causing these side effects? I would think that wanting something out of meditation take away from the reason you meditate. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am much the same. Somehow for me things like religion, spirituality, meditation, introspection are solitary activities by default. It is only when I have some kind of question that I look for others.

      Like

  8. drmukwekwezeke says:

    Very very intriguing. Great article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I appreciate the feedback

      Like

  9. What a most useful article. Just fascinating. Thank you for sharing that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your kind feedback, Paul

      Like

  10. guybon says:

    If people are working- this case meditation – on their own, the fruits of their labor is in apart dependent on their view, personality.

    When dealing with problems they will, based on their personality, or on advise they have fight , flee , accept or study it.

    Does meditation change my world view ?

    – Angry, narcissistic world view because of being tired

    => reduction of stress gives me a more peaceful, forgiving world view

    = food, rest, meditation causes reduction.

    – Anger because of ego

    => anger here get reduced because of insight due to looking at feeling and seeing and not following,believing in angry righteousness, and letting go, not by calming ==> change in world view

    : Whenever I am feeling righteous, arrogant I am wrong. Then I should not charge under the flag of righteousness, Drop my spear and pick up my magnifying glass, make sure it has no distortion and see the source of my righteousness.

    – Anger that is in me but really comes from others but I am not aware of that, so I think it’s mine and puts me in conflict

    => Meditation derived, Took me time. plus I forgot what I learned in the past.. => A change in worldview.

    – Irrational: Being focused does not change that. Changing focus does.

    – paranormal: I had visions, Telepathic contact.

    – delusional: yes but. I see that as a spectrum. A vision can be thought of as delusional. An irrational thought also. We think something is a certain way, but in reality it is different.. Society has a lot of delusions. What really causes which delusion ?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing! I think it is a very personal journey for everyone and it’s hard to get into the particulars of each side effect without knowing the exact context. Is it getting better for you as you practice more?

      Like

      1. guybon says:

        It is a personal journey. Context is important. ” eliminate the impossible. What ever is left, no matter how improbable, must be true”(Conan Doyle). I am gaining distinction. Doing mindfulness of body gained contact with chakras. I have had voices in my before. I did not know where the came from. Today, while running, – a mindfulness of body exercise, besides cardiovascular – when focusing with consciousness, not with intelligence, thinking, – it does involve a thought – I got – felt – a shift of my center of consciousness, to near the pelvic or below my shoulders. I then heard a voice and I felt it was connected with the area above my pelvic. Is that the real source, I belief its possible, but could something like an association be the source?

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Soul Gifts says:

    An interesting study. The scope of this study seems limited and focused on an allopathic view of the world. As a long term meditator I would have to say that all my ‘side effects’ have been nothing but positive. My meditation practice is always grounded and protected to deflect any unwanted, negative energies from impacting on me. Do I hallucinate? I guess some may choose to call it that if utilising a DMS based definition. Certainly I experience internal phenomena that fit with the esoteric worldview – of ‘seeing’ the world behind my eyes. Meditation, based on informed decisions is a sensible way forward for the novice seeking to experience and perhaps adopt the practice long term.

    Like

    1. guybon says:

      I try to analyse unwanted aged, negative energies, thought, feeling. When I succeed I am relieved, gain more freedom.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Soul Gifts says:

        The relief is in the releasing and letting go of the old ways of being 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. And learning from them! Thanks for stopping by!

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Soul Gifts says:

    Sorry re typo. DSM

    Like

  13. iamdaimon says:

    I would say there is danger in the semantic “side effects”. From what I have witnessed in modern medicine it is a way to make money by treating them, usually with drugs, and in the process violating the philosophy of do no harm. What this misses is the ancient view of shaman sickness and transcendence. When the powers come through (also called dieties in various cultures, angels, demons, ghosts, animals, creatures, aliens, or what have you) often they are corrupt. This can produce anything from irrationality to tarditive diskenisia. Physical illnesses as well. This can incapacitate a person, even for years on end. This is common among all cultures and is termed shaman sickness by some scholars. In India it is simply the regular process of kundalini waking up. When I have kriyas for example, they are at first chaotic involuntary movements, but as they develop, they become mudras. Treating them as bad can stifle their miraculous development. Broken thinking patterns can de-corrupt and become prophetic guides. Many broken thought patterns for me have developed into direct education from ancestral dieties, teaching how reality works. Their teachings are then verified on the outside with miraculous proof. There is a corruption and a refinement side of development. When the corruption runs it’s course, it is transcended, and power over it is obtained. I am often ad odds with modern medicine due to this over patholization. I have even heard of a lawsuit from someone who had energy healing wake up their chakras, and experienced what docs call psychosis, which in reality is simply the natural process of transcendence. How foolish. Transcendence throws every fear imaginable at you and tests on it. It also effects the outside in the form of chaotic events in life. It’s not just inner development, it is an overhaul on life experience. The dark side hits first before the light side. Why treat someone and convince them they have to go back to their old ego, the way things were, with their regular job and life, when they are experiencing the process of enlightenment and will never be the same? It really is strength training for the soul. Some guidance may at first help a person, but once they make contact with their inner trainers, like I have, no psychologist to guru is required, and can actually hurt significantly. The real wisdom is learning to trust no one but the self. All others will lead you astray in the long run. The powers need honor in balance. They are polarities and contradict each other. Lie and truth. When balance is obtained transcendence occurs. It does dishonor to them to try to discredit them as bad.

    Like

  14. What is the difference between meditation and self-hypnosis if any?

    Like

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