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Meditation may cause negative feelings for some, study finds

Contrary to popular belief, a new study says meditation can result in distressing and potentially impairing experiences.
/ Source: TODAY

Meditation is widely touted by wellness experts as a means to reduce stress, increase self-awareness, and encourage a healthy lifestyle. But it's not all zen and self-actualization. In fact, a new study says the practice can result in distressing and potentially impairing experiences along the way.

The study, released Wednesday by Brown University researchers who interviewed nearly 100 meditators and meditation teachers, revealed frequently reported side effects, including hypersensitivity to light or sound. Insomnia and involuntary body movements was also reported, in addition to feelings of fear, anxiety, and panic.

Meditation can help relieve stress and provide calmness, but also brought up fear and anxiety for some people.
Meditation can help relieve stress and provide calmness, but also brought up fear and anxiety for some people. PeopleImages / Getty Images/iStockphoto

“We’re not trying to scare people away from trying meditation,” Jared Lindahl, a visiting assistant professor at Brown’s Cogut Center for the Humanities and co-lead researcher of the study told TODAY. “There is data that many people find tremendous benefits from meditating."

With so many different types of meditation, teachers, and apps, people who want to meditate need to understand their goals and find a teacher or form that matches what they're looking for, Lindahl said.

The duration of the negative effects — like insomnia or a loss of emotions —varied from person to person, anywhere from a few days to more than a decade, according to the study, which was published Wednesday in the science journal Plos One.

“Sometimes experiences were ostensibly desirable, such as feelings of unity or oneness with others. But some meditators reported them going too far, lasting too long or feeling violated, exposed or disoriented,” said Britton. "Others who had meditation experiences that felt positive during retreats reported that the persistence of these experiences interfered with their ability to function or work when they left the retreat and returned to normal life.”

It’s important to note that the researchers sought out meditators and teachers who have had challenging experiences because there isn’t much research on the subject. During their five-year process, they talked to practitioners from the three main types of meditation: Theravada, Zen and Tibetan.

Unexpected experiences

Willoughby Britton, the other co-lead researcher, explained the purpose of the study was not to determine the rate of negative experiences but to document them and find potential influencing factors. Some of those potential red flags which warrant more study, he said, include frequency and type of meditation practice, psychiatric and trauma history, and the relationship the meditator has with his or her teacher.

The science behind meditation is still in early stages. Previous research has found that mindful meditation, which focuses on breathing, can reduce pain. Certain types of meditation, combined with exercise, can ease symptoms of depression, according to a recent study.Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, acknowledged that unexpected or uncomfortable experiences can sometimes arise during meditation and applauded the study for examining an under-researched area.

“Certainly people at different times may go through some degree of difficulty. But it’s not everybody,” said Saltzberg. “I wouldn’t go into meditation thinking it’s going to be dreadful. The quality of instructor, the nature of the community and the ongoing support system makes a difference in how we handle the feelings that arise.”


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