March 3, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Content Warning: Please note this article contains discussions about mental health. While we take every care to ensure accuracy within our articles, the author isn’t a licensed medical professional.

person meditating in front of sunset

Feeling like nothing’s changed after the harsh reality of exam season and the ‘most depressing month of the year’? You may be considering meditation as a way to beat the winter blues. Maybe you’ve been meaning to download Headspace or book a mindfulness retreat.

Meditation is certainly touted as the holy grail of self-betterment and the ultimate tool for reducing stress and anxiety, but recent evidence shows it can have the opposite effect and leave people feeling worse.

Rooted in Buddhism, meditation is classified as a mind-body activity where one consciously focuses their attention. Mindfulness, recently adopted as a trendy Western buzzword, is a state that can be achieved through meditation, where one becomes aware to enjoy the present moment.

Mindfulness meditation, as well as other forms of meditation, have shown great promise in treating a range of mental health issues, including depression, chronic pain and sexual dysfunction. It’s also practised to increase concentration, happiness, productivity and relaxation.

However, what is less well known is that meditation has been linked with cases of psychosis, insomnia and even suicidal thoughts, particularly in those who are already struggling with their mental health. Scientists have only begun to study these distressing experiences, but they know they can be common.

Last year, a University College London-led study on the experiences of meditation hit headlines as it found that as many as 25% of regular meditators reported having a ‘particularly unpleasant’ experience related to their practice. Anxiety, fear, distorted emotions and an altered sense of self were some of the effects included in the category.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, surveyed 1,232 regular meditators making it the most reliable measure of unpleasant psychological experiences during meditation. These experiences may well be part of what someone is trying to achieve with meditation, but they could also be unnecessary or harmful.

Dr Marco Schlosser, lead author and researcher in the Division of Psychiatry at UCL, said the aim of their study was “to show the prevalence of these experiences so that we can engage and encourage studies that are more nuanced and contribute to a bit more of a balanced public perception.”

Schlosser is referring to how while the number of scientific studies investigating the benefits of meditation-based therapies has soared, these more problematic experiences have largely been ignored.

Schlosser suggests that mindfulness research has been stuck in the “hype pipeline” where the lack of existing data allows positive results to be overvalued and extrapolated. Unfortunately, this pattern is often seen with a new health intervention.

“If we don’t start acknowledging these experiences, then we are far away from understanding them and investigating their role in meditation practice,” worries Schlosser.

The studies showing benefits of mindfulness meditation are also more likely to have methodological shortcomings, as reported in a review co-authored by Dr Miguel Farias, an expert in meditation research and leader of the Brain, Belief, & Behaviour research group at Coventry University.

Farias sees this as a sort of “scientific propaganda”.

“People want to advance their own careers and research and therefore, make things look glossier than they really are.”

From a business point of view, it’s easy to see the attraction of mindfulness as a therapy. It’s virtually free to offer, can be easily taken up and is less invasive than a drug. Therefore, it’s understandable that it’s causing such a stir in healthcare science.

Headspace Logo
Headspace was founded in 2010, and has become a major company in the meditation boom, offering guided meditations on its app.

However, Farias stresses that “the [scientific] literature we now have, is clearly enough to show that there is something happening which most researchers weren’t originally aware of. I think it’s scandalous not to say, ethically and responsibly, people should be looking at this more seriously.”

Whether scientific research around mindfulness becomes more nuanced in the future, it can do little to stem the rising tide of mindfulness.

Farias worries that in this respect the damage has already been done.

“We’re trying to promote it [meditation] as something that is great and will work for everyone, and that’s simply not the case.”

The meditation and mindfulness industry is worth over $1.2bn in the USA alone. Dubbed “McMindfulness”, the industry is known for its trendy marketing. It’s likely you’ve been interrupted on social media by an advert for the ‘Calm’ app offering self-guided meditation or have seen posters for mindfulness workshops and talks promising to deliver a stress-free life.

But these adverts rarely mention the potential for adverse effects and often have minimal support and guidance attached to them should you have a stressful experience. 

The absence of health and wellbeing warnings could mean individuals have unknowingly embarked on something that could make them feel worse. And while some evidence suggests negative effects usually don’t leave a lasting impact, others report cases where there has been enduring distress.

As to why negative experiences occur, scientists really don’t know yet. Farias suggests one potential explanation is that “people already have psychological vulnerabilities or a history of mental illness and by meditating they become more aware of these problems.”

However, he’s sceptical with this preliminary theory and as many people without mental health problems have reported adverse effects too.

Another clue is that there are lower reports of unpleasant meditative experiences from individuals that hold religious beliefs. This could point to the importance of community support and embedded traditions for meditation.

Questions like these should be the focus of future investigations.

Marco Schlosser hopes the future will bring more informed clinical guidelines around mindfulness and more thorough meditation teacher training. At the very least, he thinks “it’s important to put the pressure off of people to associate meditation with something that is going to make them feel amazing right away or in the long-term.”

While the research is catching up, it’s best to approach any bold health claims with informed scepticism. Meditation may not be everyone’s cup of tea and that’s okay.

If you are experiencing distressing symptoms while meditating, then we recommend stopping and seek help. You can get support from Imperial College’s Student Counselling Service.

More details about support can be found here.

Gina Degtyareva completed the MSc Science Communication course in 2019 and is currently working as a media and communications officer for the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.