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Too Much Mindfulness Can Worsen Your Mental Health

Woman practicing meditation.

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Key Takeaways

  • Meditation and mindfulness can cause some negative side effects in some who practice.
  • In a new study, 6% of participants who practiced mindfulness reported negative side effects that lasted for more than a month.
  • These effects can disrupt social relationships, sense of self, and physical health.

Mindfulness and meditation have emerged as mental health cure-alls, treating everything from stress to depression. Increasingly, however, researchers are also coming to terms with the less positive side of the practice.

Meditation can have adverse effects, causing some people to re-experience trauma or have trouble sleeping. In a new study examining some of these experiences, 6% of participants who practiced mindfulness reported negative side effects and 14% reported disruptive side effects that lasted for more than a month. The study was published in mid-May in Clinical Psychological Science.

When considering these results, it's important to look at them in a nuanced way, rather than as evidence that meditation is "bad," lead study author Willoughby Britton, PhD, a neuroscientist and professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, tells Verywell.

"For the people in this study, [mindfulness] had a massively positive effect for depression," she says. "You can have positive effects and negative ones at the same time in the same person. And, a negative effect can be a positive one at different times."

Negative Side Effects of Meditation

For the study, researchers focused on mindfulness-based programs' (MBPs) adverse effects. Previously, in an August 2020 review, they found that out of 7,000 studies on mindfulness only 1% examined these negative experiences.

This small amount of research could indicate negligence, but it may also be due to the fact that measuring harm is difficult.

"People don't want to tell you that they were harmed by your treatment. They'd rather lie," Britton says. "And the therapist doesn't want to hear it. The researcher doesn't want to hear it. Pretty much no one wants to talk about it." That silence, she adds, can have real-life consequences, such as perpetuating harm, and leaving individuals confused on how or where to get treatment.

For this study, the authors followed 24 current harm monitoring guidelines to examine meditation-related adverse effects in mindfulness-based programs.

Researchers tested them on a group of 96 people who had participated in three kinds of 8-week programs of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. The participants represented people who typically seek out this type of treatment in the U.S.— predominantly middle-aged women looking to manage mild to severe anxiety, depression, and stress.

Three months after the programs ended, researchers interviewed participants, asking about their experiences post-MBP. They were asked about side effects, including:

  • If they thought they were linked to mindfulness meditation practice
  • How long they lasted
  • How positive/negative they were
  • How they impacted daily life and functioning

Of the 96 participants, 58% reported at least one meditation-related adverse effect, which ranged from perpetual hypersensitivity to nightmares to re-experiencing trauma.

Meditation-related adverse effects with negative impacts on daily functioning occurred in 37% of participants. About 6% experienced “lasting bad effects” for more than one month.

Among the most serious and common side effects reported were:

  • Dysregulated arousal (energy problems; disrupted sleep/wake cycles)
  • Anxiety
  • Signs of dissociation
  • Emotional blunting (feeling emotionless)
  • Flashbacks
  • Compromised executive dysfunction (problems making decisions, memory lapses, cognitive impairments, etc.)
  • Social withdrawal
  • Perceptual hypersensitivity

Still, a side effect can be good and bad at different times. Take perceptual hypersensitivity, for instance. Sometimes it might feel amazing because your sense of the world is magnified. "But sometimes, when you can't stop hearing the clock ticking when you're trying to go to sleep, that can change," Britton says.

Why Are People Experiencing These Reactions?

To understand why people are experiencing short- or long-term adverse reactions to meditation and mindfulness, Britton says more research is needed. However, there are some theories.

Britton says that the 6% who reported long-term negative side effects tended to meditate more. Duration as a risk factor for "unpleasant" meditation experiences has been previously reported in people who go on retreats, where meditation is done 12 to 15 hours a day.

In addition to duration, context and culture should be considered. When Britton presented her research to Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, in 2012, he suggested that harm could be brought on by meditation due to "the lack of fuller knowledge, a fuller picture."

Although research about the possible adverse effects of meditation and mindfulness is rare, Britton notes that her study is in no way the first of its kind.

"Suddenly, we're actually talking about it and measuring it, and it seems like it's everywhere," Britton says. "It seems like it just emerged and it's happening more, but it's not."

It's also been documented outside of academia. "[Adverse effects] were documented in Buddhist textual sources that are hundreds and hundreds of years old," Britton adds, "So this is not news. It's just that the market value of mindfulness is so high that it's not convenient [to talk about]."

"I'm not trying to detract from the benefits," Britton adds. "But every day, I see people that tell me, 'Why didn't anyone tell me this could happen?'"

As her research develops, Britton hopes to spread awareness about possible meditation-related side effects. If you start feeling any of the symptoms mentioned above during or around meditating, it might be time to reach out and get help from a mental health professional. Britton founded Cheetah House—a non-profit organization that provides information and resources about meditation-related difficulties to meditators and teachers. At the site, you can find mental health professionals who specialize in meditation-related difficulties.

You can also talk to a meditation instructor who is familiar with what you're going through. Meditation and mindfulness-related harms aren't recognized by every expert in the field, so it's important to talk to someone who won't belittle your experience and tell you to just "keep meditating," Britton adds.

What This Means For You

It's important to monitor yourself for everyday difficulty and/or concerning changes related to your meditation practice. The Cheetah House website showcases videos about adverse effects, as well as stories from people who have experienced issues. If you start experiencing negative changes, try limiting your mindfulness practice, and talk to a mental healthcare provider about how to limit these effects.

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Article Sources
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  1. Mindful. The Healing Power of Mindfulness. Updated February 28, 2011.

  2. Cheetah House. Symptoms. Updated 2021.

  3. Britton, WB, Lindahl, JR, Cooper, DJ, Canby, NK, & Palitsky, R. (2021). Defining and measuring meditation-related adverse effects in mindfulness-based programs.Clinical Psychological Science, 2167702621996340. doi:10.1177/2167702621996340

  4. Farias, M., Maraldi, E, Wallenkampf, KC, & Lucchetti, G. (2020). Adverse events in meditation practices and meditation-based therapies: A systematic review. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 142(5), 374–393. doi:10.1111/acps.13225

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