Not for everyone: 1 in 4 meditation enthusiasts report ‘unpleasant experiences’

LONDON — It’s touted by millions across the globe for its ability to lower stress, zap anxiety, or increase focus, among other mental health benefits. But a new study finds meditation isn’t always a sure-fire calming therapy for everyone. In fact, it can backfire for many and worsen symptoms to the point that experts caution more research is still needed on the ancient practice.

Of the 1,232 frequent meditation practitioners (people who have meditated regularly for at least two months) surveyed by researchers at the University College London, more than a quarter admit they had at least one “unpleasant experience” while meditating. These experiences include feeling afraid and battling distorted emotions.

Researchers say suffering from an unpleasant meditative experience seems to be more prevalent among specific groups: those who attend a meditation retreat, those who only practice deconstructive types of meditation such as Vipassana (insight) and Koan practice used in Zen Buddhism, as well as those with higher levels of repetitive negative thinking.

Conversely, women and participants with religious beliefs were less likely to have a negative experience.

“These findings point to the importance of widening the public and scientific understanding of meditation beyond that of a health-promoting technique,” says lead author Marco Schlosser, a professor in UCL’s Division of Psychiatry, in a statement. “Very little is known about why, when, and how such meditation-related difficulties can occur: more research is now needed to understand the nature of these experiences. When are unpleasant experiences important elements of meditative development, and when are they merely negative effects to be avoided?”

For the study, participants were surveyed online about their meditation history, and completed assessments that measure repetitive negative thinking and self-compassion. They were also asked, “Have you ever had any particularly unpleasant experiences (e.g. anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, altered sense of self or the world), which you think may have been caused by your meditation practice?”

In all, 25.6% said they’ve had an unpleasant experience (28.5% of men, 23% of women). This was especially true for those who did not have a religious affiliation (30.6%), versus 22% who did hold religious beliefs. Nearly 3 in 10 people who had attended a meditation retreat (29%) reported negative experiences, compared to only 19.6% of those who had never attended one.

Researchers say the results show there needs to be a greater focus on the downside to meditating, as studies are typically centered around all the good the practice offers.

“Most research on meditation has focused on its benefits, however, the range of meditative experiences studied by scientists needs to be expanded,” says Schlosser. “It is important at this point not to draw premature conclusions about the potential negative effects of meditation.”

The study is published in the journal PLOS One.

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