May 15, 2019
Meditation has been touted by millions worldwide for its ability to lower stress, zap anxiety, and increase focus, among other mental health benefits. But a study conducted at the University College of London has found that fully 25% of those who have tried it say that they don’t feel tranquil or serene; rather, they experience fear and distorted emotions, Study Finds reports.
Of 1,232 frequent meditation practitioners (people who have meditated regularly for at least two months) surveyed by researchers at the college, more than one-quarter admit they have had at least one “unpleasant experience” while meditating.
Researchers say suffering from an unpleasant meditative experience seems to be more prevalent among specific groups—among them, those who:
- Attend a meditation retreat,
- Only practice “deconstructive types” of meditation such as Vipassana (insight) and Koan practice used in Zen Buddhism, and
- Experience higher levels of repetitive negative thinking.
“These findings point to the importance of widening the public and scientific understanding of meditation beyond that of a health-promoting technique,” says lead author Marco Schlosser, a professor in UCL’s Division of Psychiatry. “Very little is known about why, when, and how such meditation-related difficulties can occur: More research is now needed to understand the nature of these experiences. When are unpleasant experiences important elements of meditative development, and when are they merely negative effects to be avoided?”
For the study, participants were surveyed online about their meditation history, and completed assessments that measure repetitive negative thinking and self-compassion. They were also asked, “Have you ever had any particularly unpleasant experiences (e.g. anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, altered sense of self or the world), which you think may have been caused by your meditation practice?”
In all, 25.6% said they’ve had an unpleasant experience (28.5% of men, 23% of women). This was especially true for those who did not have a religious affiliation (30.6%), versus 22% who did hold religious beliefs. About 29% of people who had attended a meditation retreat reported negative experiences, compared to only 19.6% of those who had never attended one.
Researchers say the results show there needs to be a greater focus on the downside to meditating, as studies are typically centered around all the good the practice offers.
“Most research on meditation has focused on its benefits, however, the range of meditative experiences studied by scientists needs to be expanded,” says Schlosser. “It is important at this point not to draw premature conclusions about the potential negative effects of meditation.”
Research contact: @ucl