Negative Side Effects of Meditation:
Meditation and mindfulness training is more popular than ever before. Due to this increase in popularity, the imagined commercial potential is attracting enterprising business people because, let’s face it, the benefits of meditation are proven and undeniable. That’s why today there are thousands of online apps, online courses, and meditation centers popping up nationwide to take advantage of people’s desire to learn to be more peaceful. It’s even being called McMindfulness.
Unfortunately, many of these entrepreneurs are not trained to teach, and some don’t even meditate! Instead, they imagine there’s not much to telling someone to sit down and close their eyes and say nice things to themselves, or count their breaths. In short, they are teaching meditation in the marketplace without any depth of knowledge or experience, sharing what they’ve read in the news, or listened to in a teleseminar. Learning from an untrained teacher can be potentially unsafe.
For those who have had the proper training as a meditation teacher (see a list of MMI Certified Meditation & Mindfulness Teachers), they have likely discovered that (1) there are lots of misconceptions of meditation; (2) meditation can release a lot of stress; and (3) meditation takes you on a journey into awareness of the deepest parts of yourself and wakes you up to the way you see yourself and the world.
Though we know that meditation doesn’t cure everything, there may be a segment of the population that comes to you hoping it does. In addition to this misconception, there are others: meditation should make you peaceful all the time, in order to meditate you should clear your mind and try to stop thinking; or, meditation is simply a way to relax or become more focused.
Many people come to learn to meditate in order to relax, get over a loss, become healthier, or increase their ability to focus. And often they come to learn to meditate because they are facing a crisis.
While meditation can help you through a crisis, and relaxation and better focus are certainly benefits, meditation has not been given the gravity it deserves, as there can be a much deeper effect.
For thousands of years, meditation has been a cornerstone of spiritual development, not just stress release. People would meditate to become self-realized or expand their awareness, or become closer to the Divine. Along the path, they’d soon learn that the journey towards spiritual awakening is not always an easy or pleasant one. This means that one should take meditation and its effects seriously.
In reading Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the “goal” of meditation (dhyana) is to create more self-awareness and an expanded experience of reality. As someone becomes more self-aware, all mental and emotional constructs are illuminated. And it’s the job of a meditator to face them. (This is the yoga, the “union” of one’s awareness with all that is.) For some, this process can have some negative effects.
Due to the modern, busy lifestyle, many of us haven’t time for processing emotional and mental content fully. Some of us don’t meditate or live mindfully, so are less aware of chronic discomfort or toxicity in our lives, and it starts to build. Some might actively avoid processing it too, turning to food, alcohol, work, relationships, shopping, gambling, exercise, and mental distractions to keep the awareness of the stress from rising to the surface.
For those with major stressors in their history, they can become disassociated from their body, emotions, or any past experience. They are not necessarily living mindfully or feeling like they are participating fully in their lives. In any of these cases, an accumulation of a number of unprocessed “files,” or undigested experiences is the result.
For a new meditator who launches into a committed stillness practice such as a silent breath awareness or mantra meditation, the stillness allows their nervous system to settle down. The experiences of a meditator can be differentiated into three categories: movement (of the mind, body, and emotions due to stress release), falling asleep, and transcendence.
Let’s just talk about movement. As the body relieves and dissolves stress in meditation, the unprocessed files are opened and unraveled. This can cause a lot of internal mental and emotional activity, and as the nervous system shifts to the parasympathetic response, there can be some physical movement. And, because the meditator’s attention is turned inward, there’s increased awareness of all the activity going on internally.
As the mind and body settle down, impurities are released in the mind and body, and the emotional, mental—and even physical—blockages that have been otherwise hidden from one’s awareness, may be dislodged or dissolved. This purification of stress allows for the body, mind, and emotions to become integrated.
The movements of the mind and body and emotions in meditation can seem like normal everyday experiences such as creating to-do lists, planning the future, reviewing the past, or being distracted. Feelings of anxiety, sadness, grief, or anger can also emerge. Physically, one can feel twitchy, dizzy, hot, cold, tingly, or swaying. It can be a challenge to bear witness to these experiences in meditation without reacting to them.
Is Meditation Safe?
When practiced daily for a limited period of time, meditation is considered to be safe for healthy people. Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist who founded the Relaxation Response, studied meditation for many years and stated that he had seen no unfavorable side effects when people practiced (breath and counting meditation) 20-30 minutes two times a day.
Some of us expect meditation will lead us to all things blissful and beautiful, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Meditation not only allows us to become familiar with the quiet place inside ourselves, it can also lead to a lot of upheaval as things hidden are now revealed. During meditation, people become familiar with the ever-changing internal experience. Depending on what is stored in the internal space, meditation can bring awareness to that which has been hidden for ages. As awareness expands, there is a lessening of the attachment to our self-image, our way of doing things, and our social hypnosis. In short, the ego becomes less dominant, as the spirit of who we truly are is enlivened.
What about the Negative Effects?
The negative effects of meditation have been the source of news lately. That is because, for some, the memories, images, or emotional responses from prior abuse, and/or trauma can surface with meditation. These can be disturbing and seemingly unbearable—not only in the meditation but while one is living their life. Some people can suffer from mania, hallucinations, depression, and withdrawal from life. Others lose their appetite or suffer from insomnia. For those at risk of psychiatric disease, meditation can increase the issues, and for those already mentally ill, meditation can create psychosis.
Every one of us has a genetic predisposition to deal with – ours and those of our ancestors. Perhaps genetically based potentials of anxiety, depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, etc., as well as their treatment, eventual acceptance, and transparency in sharing with others, are all a part of the evolution of human consciousness. Perhaps it’s part of the human evolution – the release of humanity as a whole from the attachment to ego, and what and how “perfect” should look.
It is difficult to evaluate in advance who will or will not suffer these side effects, since those factors might often have drawn the person to learn to meditate in the first place. However, if a disturbance presents itself, it is not your job to diagnose or treat these students. Unless you have a counseling degree, it is above your level of training and expertise! Tell the student to cease their daily meditations, find a trustworthy therapist in their area whom they can call on for an objective opinion as to their next steps. Ideally, you can refer your student to a mental health care professional so they can to find the help they need to deal with their trauma. Find a professional therapist here.
An MMI Certified Meditation & Mindfulness Teacher shared this with me in a personal email, “We who are long-time meditators, and even some of us who are teachers, may believe that our meditation practice should somehow make us immune to these mental upheavals, but it does not. So, subsequently we may feel like a fraud. Perhaps it is our job as teachers to be honest and forthcoming about our real experience of expanding awareness in order to help others who are confused or are dealing with something similar. This is all so very profound and complicated. It involves to a large part our social conditioning, and overcoming it. That is perhaps the greatest challenge of all.”
Tips for choosing the Right Meditation & Mindfulness Teacher for You:
Here are some tips from Lisa Campbell, a faculty member of the Meditation Teacher Academy, and a long time meditation practitioner and Certified Meditation & Mindfulness Instructor.
“I was recently asked if anyone can teach meditation; after all it seems pretty easy, right? All you have to do is tell them to sit, breathe, or whatever your method is. Well, the short answer is yes, anyone can teach meditation –there is no organization such as the Yoga Alliance that sets standards for yoga teachers across the varying traditions (once trained and certified from a registered institution, yoga teachers can register for a 200-hr, 500-hr, Prenatal, or Children’s designation after completing general and specialty requirements.)”
“So, if you are looking for a meditation teacher, I would like to invite you to do so with discernment (after all, they’ll be working with your mind, body, and spirit.) Be open to interviewing a potential meditation teacher to see if the fit is right for you.”
Ask questions such as:
- How often do you meditate and for how many years have you meditated?
- Why do you meditate? Why do you teach meditation?
- Are you certified or working regularly with a teacher?
- What are the greatest benefits you have received through your practice?
- Where (or with whom) have you trained? How long was the training?
- Do you teach a particular tradition? Or a particular technique?
- What do you do to enliven your practice and your teaching?
There are some great teachers out there including secular and religious based ones: monks, mystics and more. Be sure that you choose a meditation teacher whose experience and background will support your success.
Find a teacher near you. Visit the latest directory of MMI Certified Meditation & Mindfulness Teachers.
- KUTZ, I., BURYSENKO, J.K. & BENSON, H. (1985a); KUTZ, I., LESERMAN, J., DORRINGTON, C., MORRISON, C.H., BORYSENKO, J. & BENSON, H. (1985b). Meditation as an adjunct to psychotherapy, an outcome study, Psychotherapy Psychosomatics, 43, pp. 209-218) Meditation and psychotherapy: a rationale for the integration of dynamic psychotherapy, the relaxation response and mindfulness meditation, American Journal of Psychiatry, 142, pp. 1-8) described some meditation side-effects: sobbing and release of hidden memories and themes from the past: incest, rejection, and abandonment.
- CRAVEN, J.L. (1989). Meditation and Psychotherapy, Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 34, pp. 648-653) Some meditators report uncomfortable kinesthetic sensations, mild dissociation, feelings of guilt and, via anxiety-provoking phenomena, psychosis-like symptoms, grandiosity, elation, destructive behavior and suicidal feelings.
- SHAPIRO, D.H. (1992). Overview: clinical and physiological comparison of meditation with other self-control strategies, American Journal of Psychiatry, (139, pp. 267-274); Adverse effects of meditation: a preliminary investigation of long-term meditators, International Journal of Psychosomatics, (39, pp. 62-67.) 62.9% of the subjects reported adverse effects during and after meditation and 7.4% experienced profoundly adverse effects. The length of practice (from 16 to 105 months) did not make any difference to the quality and frequency of adverse effects. These adverse effects were relaxation-induced anxiety and panic; paradoxical increases in tension; less motivation in life; boredom; pain; impaired reality testing; confusion and disorientation; feeling ‘spaced out’; depression; increased negativity; being more judgmental; and, ironically, feeling addicted to meditation.