Meditation Practice Produces Unpleasant as well as Pleasant Consequences
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“More than a quarter of people who regularly meditate have had a ‘particularly unpleasant’ psychological experience related to the practice, including feelings of fear and distorted emotions.” – University College London
People begin meditation with the misconception that meditation will help them escape from their problems. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, meditation does the exact opposite, forcing the meditator to confront their issues. In meditation, the practitioner tries to quiet the mind. But, in that relaxed quiet state, powerful, highly emotionally charged thoughts and memories are likely to emerge. Meditation practice can also produce some troubling experiences beyond unmasking deep psychological issues. Not the least of these experiences are awakening experiences themselves. If they are not properly understood, they can lead to sometimes devastating consequences. These experiences are so powerful and unusual that they can be misinterpreted. Awakening experiences have been misdiagnosed as psychotic breaks and the individual placed on powerful drugs and/or institutionalized.
Meditation practice can sometimes produce energetic states that can vary in intensity, location, and duration. If and when these occur, they are usually quite surprising and unexpected. They can be readily misinterpreted. They involve energy focused in specific parts of the body or overall. They can feel like nervousness, tension, or almost like electrical currents flowing through the body and can produce spontaneous and undirected movements. These energy states are usually found to be aversive and difficult to cope with.
Many practitioners never experience these issues or only experience very mild states. But these negative experiences are quite common. It has been estimated that about 25% of meditators experience negative effects. The most frequently described reactions were anxiety symptoms (including panic attacks) and depersonalization or derealization. There is a need to better understand these negative consequences of meditation.
In today’s Research News article “Unpleasant meditation-related experiences in regular meditators: Prevalence, predictors, and conceptual considerations.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6508707/), Schlosser and colleagues recruited regular meditators to complete a 20 minute online survey. They were asked to describe their meditation practice and were also asked to report any unpleasant meditation-related experiences, including anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, or an altered sense of self or the world. They were also measured for self-compassion, repetitive negative thinking, and mindfulness.
They found that 25.6% of the meditators reported that they had had particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences. They also report that women and religious practitioners were significantly less likely to report unpleasant experiences. Meditators who had high levels of repetitive negative thinking, practiced insight types of meditation (e.g. Vipassana) and who engaged in meditation retreats were significantly more likely to report unpleasant experiences.
The study was limited in that they did not look at the exact nature of the experiences or their intensity. Nonetheless, the results suggest that unpleasant negative experiences are fairly common among meditation practitioners. The results also suggest that retreats are particularly likely to evoke negative experiences and particular attention to these experiences should be built into retreat structures. In addition, the types of meditation practices that are designed to break down perceived reality, insight meditations, are particularly susceptible to negative experiences. The instructions for these practices need to include recognition of their likelihood. Finally, the results suggest that practitioners who evidence repetitive negative thinking are much more vulnerable and should be identified before beginning meditation practice for instruction.
It is important to understand these events to better prepare meditators to cope with their experiences in meditation. They are also important for meditation instructors to better monitor their students’ experiences and help them understand and deal with these experiences. Meditation is not all positive and pleasant and it is important for people engaging in meditation to understand this right from the outset. This could mitigate the impact of these negative experiences and better promote the beneficial aspects of meditation practice.
So, keep in mind that meditation practice produces unpleasant as well as pleasant consequences.
“Recent reports linked meditation with instances of anxiety, panic and the worsening of existing symptoms. Little is known about why and when these experiences arise, or how common they are.” – Marco Schlosser
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Schlosser, M., Sparby, T., Vörös, S., Jones, R., & Marchant, N. L. (2019). Unpleasant meditation-related experiences in regular meditators: Prevalence, predictors, and conceptual considerations. PloS one, 14(5), e0216643. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0216643
So far, the large and expanding body of research on meditation has mostly focussed on the putative benefits of meditation on health and well-being. However, a growing number of reports indicate that psychologically unpleasant experiences can occur in the context of meditation practice. Very little is known about the prevalence and potential causes of these experiences. The aim of this study was to report the prevalence of particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences in a large international sample of regular meditators, and to explore the association of these experiences with demographic characteristics, meditation practice, repetitive negative thinking, mindfulness, and self-compassion. Using a cross-sectional online survey, 1,232 regular meditators with at least two months of meditation experience (mean age = 44.8 years ± 13.8, 53.6% female) responded to one question about particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences. A total of 315 participants (25.6%, 95% CI: 23.1 to 28.0) reported having had particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences, which they thought may have been caused by their meditation practice. Logistic regression models indicated that unpleasant meditation-related experiences were less likely to occur in female participants and religious participants. Participants with higher levels of repetitive negative thinking, those who only engaged in deconstructive types of meditation (e.g., vipassana/insight meditation), and those who had attended a meditation retreat at any point in their life were more likely to report unpleasant meditation-related experiences. The high prevalence of particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences reported here points to the importance of expanding the scientific conception of meditation beyond that of a (mental) health-promoting and self-regulating technique. We propose that understanding when these experiences are constitutive elements of meditative practice rather than merely negative effects could advance the field and, to that end, we conclude with an overview of methodological and conceptual considerations that could be used to inform future research.