The dark side of meditation: study finds 25% have had an unpleasant experience

Meditation may not be the “ohm” experience it’s often described as. Twenty-five percent of practitioners who meditate regularly report having had a “particularly unpleasant” psychological experience, including fear, anxiety, and distorted emotions, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS One.

The likelihood of having a bad experience depended on if you were a man or a woman, if you were religious or non-religious, and what kind of meditation you practiced.

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The findings

  • 25.6% reported they had encountered a “particularly unpleasant meditation-related experience.
  • More male participants (28.5%) reported a particularly unpleasant experience, compared to 23% of female participants.
  • 30.6% of those who did not have a religious belief had a particularly unpleasant experience, compared to 22% of those who did.
  • More people, 29.2%, who practiced only deconstructive types of meditation (such as Vipassana and Koan practice used in Zen Buddhism) reported a particularly unpleasant experience, compared to 20.3% to practice other types of meditation.
  • And meditation retreats seem to be shaky ground: 29% of those who had been on one at any point in life had a particularly unpleasant experience, compared with 19.6% who had never been on a retreat.

The research is, however, limited. Led by the University College London, researchers asked 1232 online survey participants who had at least two months of regular meditation practice just one question: “Have you ever had any 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?”

The study did also not account for pre-existing mental-health problems.

Still, the findings are striking and show that more research on meditation’s downsides is needed.

“These findings point to the importance of widening the public and scientific understanding of meditation beyond that of a health-promoting technique,” said psychiatrist and lead author Marco Schlosser, 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?

This study isn’t the first to document the negative effects of meditation; Brown University has also delved into the subject. There’s anecdotal evidence of meditation’s negative effect in the news, as well. Two years ago, a woman emerged from a ten-day meditation retreat and jumped in front of a train, committing suicide. A yoga teacher who had an experience with psychosis after a meditation retreat even launched the website Meditation in Safety. So while meditation isn’t something to be scared of, going deeply into your mind can have unexpected repercussions.

If anything, the downsides of meditations, like the upsides, show just how powerful a tool it is.

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