Meditation: Can It Be Harmful?

With the growing popularity of mindfulness meditation, greater numbers of people are meditating than ever before. The positive effects of meditation have been researched and publicized over the last few decades. Well written and accessible books (Davidson/Goleman, Rich Hanson, Dalai Lama) have made it easy for anyone interested to access information on the physical, mental and spiritual benefits of a regular meditation practice.

If you have decided to learn to meditate you will soon be reaping the many benefits a meditation practice offers. You will feel more relaxed, more in control, able to meet everyday stresses masterfully. Meditation can truly make your life better.

But what of the possible negative reactions and experiences meditation may provoke. Should you be worried in undertaking meditation? Are there actual negative side-effects documented by researchers, practitioners, and spiritual masters? And if so, what can you do to either sidestep these effects, alleviate them, or prevent them altogether?

Negative effects

It has been documented that a percentage of meditators experience negative reactions. These may come early on in their practice or appear after an extended period. Meditation may be especially challenging if you are coping with depression and anxiety or suffering from PTSD. Meditation may be contraindicated if you are experiencing acute stress, a recent loss, divorce, and bereavement.

Zana Marovic, a clinical psychologist, yoga and hypnotherapist working out of South Africa, makes the point that in meditation “you connect to your internal space and depending on what you stored in your internal space meditation may release emotional and mental blockages…”.

You could see the release of past traumas due to sexual, mental, and physical abuse, or abandonment and rejection. If you are sitting on a large storage of unresolved grief, anger, and anxiety meditation may be problematic. You may see a premature release of these feelings leaving you feeling powerless to cope.

If not handled well, these adverse experiences can turn you off to meditation and worsen your emotional vulnerability.

Be cautious in how much you take on.

Long-term practice and meditation weekends or week-long intensives may be especially problematic. The stress of prolonged sitting can bring up issues in the best of us. If you have some psychological issues, the stress of long-term practice or extended sittings can push to the fore symptoms that seemed under control or perhaps not even recognized.

Moving through various developmental stages such as young adulthood to marriage, and parenting or midlife to retirement may reveal conflicts and anxieties leading to new emotional challenges in your meditative practice. Occasionally, these changes occur unexpectedly and demand the application of intense personal resources and imagination. Your meditative practice may seem disjointed and difficult.

David Shapiro, California College of Medicine, found that in a group of long-term meditators, 62.9% reported at least one adverse effect, and 7.4% suffered profound adverse experiences. Length of practice did not change the frequency of the negative reactions. The adverse effects consisted of panic, anxiety, confusion, feeling spaced out, depression, tension, lack of motivation, grandiosity, etc.

Other researchers have found similar results: (Lindahl, Fisher, et al, Farias).

A Personal Note

As a psychotherapist and stress management instructor for many years, I have seen a variety of reactions in those learning to meditate. The clear majority are positive but some experience an immediate barrage of anxiety provoking emotions stemming from past trauma or ego dystonic sensations. Severe reactions such as becoming removed or dissociated from feelings, losing a normal sense of self, and suicidal ideation may occur. Often, meditators can work through adverse effects but some face a deepening of their emotional upset.

Personally, there were times in my own decades long practice when I was flooded with anxiety, an upsurge of memories, and out of body experiences. By working through these issues in psychotherapy I was able to heal and live better.

The spiritual journey is not always a pleasant or easy one.

What to Do

Although meditation can be a powerfully positive lifestyle intervention, its side-effects need to be recognized and not ignored. Having a well-trained teacher is key to negotiating potentially harmful episodes. Be sure to have the meditation instructor explain to you what you might expect and how to handle difficult experiences. Only do what you are capable of handling.

It is important, when choosing a course in mindfulness/meditation to know the training credentials of your teachers: are they supervised, are they formally credentialed, and do they themselves practice meditation, are they part of a religious tradition. It behooves you to be sure you are in the hands of those you can trust.

Marie Johansson, clinical lead at Oxford University’s mindfulness center, oversees the center’s year-long training program. She stresses that it takes time and effort to enable mental health professionals to teach meditation and be prepared to effectively confront people’s adverse experiences.

In many religious traditions, it takes many years of difficult training before a devotee can teach meditation to others.

Don’t assume because someone teaches meditation that they are qualified to do so.

Final Thoughts

Meditation is primarily a commitment to discovering who you are. Yes, there are health benefits, enhanced relaxation, and reduced stress. But the fundamental challenge is in facing the person that you have become through the moment to moment awareness of your present experience. This awareness encompasses the good and the bad. It can be the experience of joy or worry, happiness or sadness, memories of trauma or of love and caring.

Your experience in meditation is unique to you. Whatever your reactions to the process, they are valuable and real. Take them seriously. If the going gets tough, make the decisions that will help you through. If you need to get into psychotherapy, do it. If you need to stop meditating temporarily, to stabilize yourself, do it. Speak to your teacher. Speak to your friends and family and fellow meditators. Be honest with yourself.

Ironically, it may be those adverse experiences that emerge as the most valuable in your quest for find out who you really are.

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Robert Oliva

Dr. Robert M Oliva is a traditional naturopath, a NYS licensed master social worker, a certified holistic health practitioner, and…

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