Meditation can worsen mental health, even cause clinical psychiatric issues

I have always been ambivalent in regards to meditation, mostly due to its teachings that many perceived problems are simply in “our head” and all we need to do as “treatment” is steer our thoughts in a particular direction. We are flooded with information/advice that once we master whatever technique the specific type of meditation is promoting, all of our mental health issues would magically go away, or at least we would find peace. Unfortunately, my (albeit limited) experience with people with mental health disorders suggests this is approach is highly counterproductive as the true cause of mental distress is physical, real, tangible, stress. Worse still, the continued insistence of medical professionals and all sorts of “bliss coaches” that the problem is not coming from the outside but from the inside, that we are somehow flawed and internally disturbed for no tangible reason strikes me as very patronizing and openly manipulative. Instead of identifying problems in our environment, diet, relationships, politics, etc that negatively affect our physiological health (and thus mental health), many psychiatrists and “gurus” insist that we need to decouple our mental health from all of these tangible issues and instead focus on “quieting the mind” as the key to solving our distress. As if somehow, our mind is insulated from the body and the signals it received from the environment! Does it remind of you something else, often preached and practiced by doctors? Yes, of course! It is an idealistic attitude, similar to the “cancer gene” idea that teaches cancer is a defect within ourselves not related to the external environment. That toxic/fraudulent idea has ruled medicine/oncology for more than a century, with disastrous results for all involved patients. And now we see that similar ideas are permeating the field of mental health.

In the last decade, meditation classes and coverage in the media has increased several hundred fold and continues to rise, while at the same time the mental health of the population continues to massively deteriorate. In light of this reality, I think serious skepticism about the benefits of meditation is more than warranted but up until recently there was little in terms of concrete evidence to suggest that meditation is not the magic bullet we are being led to believe. So, my discussions on the topic with friends and family were often ridiculed for being little more than fearmongering. However, recently published studies and articles below provide the “first systematic review of the evidence” and the picture is not pretty. Those studies suggest that meditation can make matters worse for a significant percentage of practitioners. One study from 1992 found that more than 60% of practitioners experienced at least one adverse mental effect, and 7% experienced profoundly negative effects. In many cases, those negative effects did not dissipate upon stopping meditation and some became full-blown clinical psychiatric issues that lasted, on average, for several years. I think the negative side effect rate is actually much higher because the studies lasted only a few months each and for many people the true effects of meditation are not known years, and sometimes decades after starting practicing. This is corroborated by one of the studies below, which found that practitioners with more past meditation experience were more likely to experience deteriorating mental health. That suggests a “dose-response relationship” both in magnitude and duration of meditation. One of the studies also directly states that the number of people found to experience negative effects is an underestimate. It is my hope that more people will realize meditation is far from a magic bullet and can often make things worse by convincing a person to see the problem in terms of a “defective self” instead of a sub-optimal environment that drives pathology.

“…I looked further into the literature. In 1992, David Shapiro, a professor at UCLA Irvine, published an article about the effects of meditation retreats. After examining 27 people with different levels of meditation experience, he found 63 per cent of them had suffered at least one negative effect and seven per cent profoundly adverse effects. The negative effects included anxiety, panic, depression, pain, confusion and disorientation. But perhaps only the least experienced felt them – and might several days of meditation not overwhelm those who were relatively new to the practice? The answer was no. When Shapiro divided the larger group into those with lesser and greater experience, there were no differences: all had an equal number of adverse experiences. And an earlier study had arrived at a similar, but even more surprising conclusion: those with more experience also had considerably more adverse effects than the beginners.”

“…Amid the small pile of articles on the topic, I found two by Arnold Lazarus and Albert Ellis, co-founders of CBT. In 1976, Lazarus reported that a few of his own patients had had serious disturbances after meditating, and strongly criticised the idea that “meditation is for everyone”. And Ellis shared his misgivings. He believed it could be used as a therapeutic tool, but not with everyone – and overall, that it could be used only in moderation as a “thought-distracting” or “relaxing” technique. “Like tranquilisers,” he wrote, “it may have both good and bad effects – especially, the harmful result of encouraging people to look away from some of their central problems, and to refrain from actually disputing and surrendering their disturbance-creating beliefs.”

“…Willoughby Britton, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Brown University, is now trying to map what she calls “the dark side of Dharma”, an interest that arose from witnessing two people being hospitalised after intense meditation practice, together with her own experience after a retreat in which she felt an unimaginable terror. And reading through the classical Buddhist literature, she realised that such experiences are often mentioned as common stages of meditation.”

“…Other unpleasant things can happen, too, as Britton discovered through interviews with numerous individuals: arms flap, people twitch and have convulsions; others go through euphoria or depression, or report not feeling anything at all as their physical senses go numb. Still, unpleasant though they are, if these symptoms were confined to a retreat, there wouldn’t be much to worry about – but they’re not. Sometimes they linger, affecting work, child care and relationships. They can become a clinical health problem, which, on average, lasts for more than three years. What’s more, meditation teachers know about it – Britton says – but researchers are usually sceptical; they ask about the psychiatric history of meditators who develop mental illness, as if meditation itself had little or nothing to do with it.”

“…”There is a new dogma about meditation: when it fails, its limitations are never questioned,” she said. “We are told they weren’t doing it right. But maybe neither the practice nor the person is wrong. The truth about our human condition is that no one thing works for everyone. The spiritual journey is about the unmasking of oneself, being more authentically ‘self’, and whatever path leads us there is grand for each of us. That particular path is not necessarily good for all of us – but since it has moved out of the monastic environment into the wider secular world, meditation is being sold as that which will not only make us feel better but will make us better people – more successful, stronger, convincing …”

“…TWITCHING, trembling, panic, disorientation, hallucinations, terror, depression, mania and psychotic breakdown – these are some of the reported effects of meditation. Surprised? We were too. Techniques such as transcendental meditation and mindfulness are promoted as ways of quieting the mind, alleviating pain and anxiety, and even transforming you into a happier and more compassionate person: natural cure-alls without adverse effects. But happiness and de-stressing were not what meditation techniques, with their Buddhist and Hindu roots, were originally developed for.”

“…A quarter of regular meditators say they have experienced negative mental states as a result of meditation, including anxiety and fear. Marco Schlosser at University College London and colleagues surveyed 1232 people who had meditated at least once a week for at least two months….People who had previously attended a meditation retreat and those who had higher levels of repetitive negative thinking were more likely to report unpleasant meditation-associated experiences, while women and religious respondents were less likely.”

“…Mindfulness and other types of meditation are usually seen as simple stress-relievers – but they can sometimes leave people worse off. About one in 12 people who try meditation experience an unwanted negative effect, usually a worsening in depression or anxiety, or even the onset of these conditions for the first time, according to the first systematic review of the evidence. “For most people it works fine but it has undoubtedly been overhyped and it’s not universally benevolent,” says Miguel Farias at Coventry University in the UK, one of the researchers behind the work.”

“…They found that about 8 per cent people who try meditation experience an unwanted effect. “People have experienced anything from an increase in anxiety up to panic attacks,” says Farias. They also found instances of psychosis or thoughts of suicide. The figure of 8 per cent may be an underestimate, as many studies of meditation record only serious negative effects or don’t record them at all, says Farias.”