Meditation is often seen as a panacea — a cure for all ills from heartbreak to joint pain, from high blood pressure to low confidence.
Medical professionals and mental health experts widely recommend the practice, and numerous studies have proved its effectiveness in treating specific conditions. Research shows it can help ease anxiety and stress (Goyal et al, 2014).
It’s also something you can do from home, and for free, so it’s not surprising many people are getting into it now.
But if you’re considering meditation — or even if you’ve been doing it for a while — you need to know about the possible side-effects.
The Risks of Meditation
We tend to think of meditation as harmless. It’s right there with “set a regular sleeping schedule” and “eat more vegetables” — useful but generic medical advice you can’t possibly get wrong.
However, many scholarly articles advise us to be careful. And if you look back into history, you’ll find that Buddhist literature holds numerous warnings for meditation students.
According to one study (Lindahl et al. 2017):
In Zen Buddhist traditions, the term makyō refers to a class of mostly perceptual “side-effects” or “disturbing conditions” that arise during the course of practice and which are also sometimes interpreted as signs of progress […] Zen traditions have also long acknowledged the possibility for certain practice approaches to lead to a prolonged illness-like condition known as “Zen sickness.”
So what are these disturbing conditions exactly?
1. Increased Anxiety, Panic Attacks, Depression
Let’s start with the most surprising fact: although meditation can ease anxiety and depression, it can sometimes make them worse.
One often-cited study from the nineties (Shapiro 1992) found 62.9% of test subjects experienced specific ‘adverse effects’ of meditation. Some of these effects included: “increased negative emotions, more emotional pain; increased fears and anxiety; more high strung.” The nature and intensity of these effects varied from person to person, and 7.4% of the group had to stop meditating.
Now, we shouldn’t let the numbers discourage us. Shapiro’s research was groundbreaking, but experts point out his sample size was very small, and we should instead focus on the following takeaway: it’s relatively common to experience minor emotional distress as a result of depression. Only a small minority of people experience severe emotional side effects.
Why Does This Happen?
Meditation can help you slow down and focus on your feelings. This is a big part of why it’s essential to so many people — in a chaotic world, it is helpful to turn our attention inward.
But when we do that, we might discover we have been sad or worried about something without realizing it. When this comes to the surface, we may react to it with distress.
This can be a useful and healing experience. Meditation is a process of becoming more mindful, and the unpleasantness can be part of the journey.
You Should Worry If…
It is up to you to judge how badly these experiences are affecting you.
If the effects last too long or start interfering with your everyday life, it could be time to stop. And if you’re one of the few people experiencing suicidal thoughts as a result of meditation, you should stop immediately and ask for professional advice.
Keep in mind meditation can bring up buried memories. The practice can significantly help people with a history of trauma, but they should be extra careful.
So, one risk we should look out for is increased awareness of your emotional state.
At the same time, you’re at risk of becoming less connected to your life and your emotions.
One comprehensive study was conducted via online surveys in English, Spanish, and Portuguese (Cebolla et al. 2017). In this case, around a quarter of respondents experienced negative side-effects.
Many of these people experienced increased anxiety or distress. However, the study shows that the most common experiences […] were “feelings of being alienated from society” (4.6%), “difficulty in feeling comfortable in the world” (4.2%), and “feeling that something is lacking” (4.2%).
A significant number of people felt they lost interest in their surroundings. They reported feeling increased boredom, and a feeling that time not spent in meditation was wasted.
Why Does This Happen?
When we meditate, we strive for clarity and inner peace. But as we work towards these goals, we may find our priorities have shifted.
Meditation can help us rise above everyday worries — and this isn’t always a good thing.
You Should Worry If…
The main thing you should look out for is the effect meditation has on your life.
For example, say that a loved one is going through a tough time at work. You have reached a stage where you are calm and clear-headed about everything, and it just doesn’t seem like much of a problem to you. If you can’t connect to your loved one’s situation, your relationship might suffer as a result.
Or maybe you’re the one with problems at work. You’re not feeling stressed about them! Which is good in and of itself, considering stress can damage your health.
But if you’re too uninterested to start fixing the problems in your professional (or personal) life, you may want to stop meditating for a while.
It can be difficult to draw boundaries between caring about something and worrying about it. The truth is there are times when stress is a healthy response to what is going on in our lives. If you think meditation is interfering with that, you should put it aside.
Better yet, ask for help. An experienced meditation teacher could point you toward a different kind of practice. There are many types of meditation, and you may need to look for a different approach.
3. Physical Side Effects and Changes in Sensory Perception
If you’re interested in some personal experiences people have had with the downsides of meditation, you might want to read this VICE article. Fair warning: the article contains some disturbing details.
One of the people interviewed mentions developing insomnia as a result of meditation. He also had to deal with “nausea, stomach and chest pain, and a feeling of existential dread” — all this in addition to a sense of emotional disconnect and alienation.
The article goes on to describe some additional risks, such as hypersensitivity to light and sound. Hallucinations are a possibility as well.
Why Does This Happen?
Like in the case of anxiety and depression, meditation increases awareness of our body and mind.
This is usually helpful, but it can make us overly conscious of the pain and tension we typically ignore. If this happens all at once, it can be tough to deal with.
Similarly, it can give us an increased awareness of our surroundings, which is often a pleasant experience — the world feels fresher, brighter, more colorful. But in some cases, this gets overwhelming, and it can make it challenging to get around in the world.
If you’re curious about the hallucinations, you might enjoy this scientific study conducted by some of the biggest names in the science of meditation.
The study explains the role of hallucinations in the Buddhist tradition, and then it covers some possible scientific explanations. It seems likely the hallucinations come from sensory loss, and this is the result of the intense concentration deep meditation can provide.
Meditating can create effects similar to those of being locked in a dark and quiet room. It has some upsides, but it carries risks as well.
You Should Worry If…
While some mild discomfort can be okay, meditation shouldn’t cause you pain or distress, and it shouldn’t overwhelm you.
If meditation is causing noticeable changes in your physical state, you have many options. Again, you might want to try a different type of meditation, and a teacher can be helpful. Or you could switch to yoga, which will help alleviate the tension in your body.
People with pain conditions can significantly benefit from meditation — but it is highly recommended to seek out tried and tested resources by others with similar conditions. Here is a good overview of the options.
One More Risk
In all of the above cases, the benefits and the risks of meditation are intertwined. To keep safe, we should focus on moderation and on choosing the right form of meditation for our needs. It’s essential to pay attention to our reactions and pull the brakes when necessary.
But there’s one more risk to keep in mind.
Most of the time, meditation works perfectly. It improves our mood, helps us feel more centered and in control of our lives.
When this change happens, we may be tempted to stop other forms of self-care. Exercise and healthy meal planning may fall to the wayside. People dealing with mental health issues might even feel the urge to give up on therapy.
However, it’s important to remember meditation isn’t a cure-all, and we can’t rely on it to keep us safe from all harm. Instead of replacing other good practices, we should add meditation to our repertoire while keeping it in perspective.
- A Comprehensive Overview of Meditation — History, Types, Resources
- A Mindfulness Guide to Negative Emotions
- Here’s What Meditators Can Teach Us About Self-Isolation
- The Dangers of Meditation