Mental Health Awareness Week: The dark side of meditation
The ancient eastern practice of meditation and mindfulness has been around for thousands of years, but far more recently exploded into prominence in the western world. It's now rare to go a week without hearing or reading about the much-celebrated wellbeing benefits of taking time each day to focus on your breath and the sensations of your body, and enjoy simply 'being' in the moment. A key component of mindful meditation is the idea of noticing the small pleasures in life, and habitually bringing your wandering thoughts back to focus on your present situation.
Yoga studios, Buddhist centres, and secular mindfulness programmes across the UK offer courses teaching the art of meditation to beginners, and pricey mindfulness retreats for the already initiated. There's also a huge wealth of books, apps, YouTube channels, podcasts, and other online resources, offering guided meditations and other relaxation exercises.
There's no doubt that meditation has both stood the test of time and gained the popularity that it has for one reason: it works. For many people, the practice of meditation is healing, transformative, stress-relieving, even life-changing. Celebrity proponents include Russell Brand, Gwyneth Paltrow and mindfulness evangelist Ruby Wax, and studies have shown that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which is based on meditative practice, could be as effective as anti-depressants at combatting depression.
But, as with most things, it seems meditation has a dark side. Last year psychologists Dr Miguel Farias (Coventry University) and Dr Catherine Wikholm (University of Surrey) published The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? – a book exploring scientific evidence for both the benefits and the limitations of meditative practice. One (albeit heavily criticised) small-scale study in 1992 found that as many as 63 per cent of people had experienced at least one negative side effect from attending meditation retreats, with 7 per cent of those reporting distressing symptoms like panic, depression, pain and anxiety.
In the US, Dr Willoughby Britton of Brown University is conducting another study, originally named 'The Dark Night Project', into people's negative experiences of meditation. As of 2014, Dr Britton has interviewed more than 40 subjects for her research and was running a halfway house, Cheetah House, for recovering meditators. Like Farias and Wikholm, Britton has found evidence of meditation triggering negative thoughts and emotions, compulsions, and even breakdowns, in certain participants.
For Farias and Wikholm, The Buddha Pill was all about questioning the unequivocal hype around meditation's curative powers, and raising concerns about the lack of scientific research into its "dark side". Since publication, Wilkholm told The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/23/is-mindfulness-making-us-ill) that: "We've had a number of emails from people wanting to tell us about adverse effects they have experienced. Often, people have thought they were alone with this, or they blamed themselves, thinking they somehow did it wrong, when actually it doesn't seem it's all that uncommon."
Many people report experiencing dissociation, breathlessness, claustrophobia and panic during meditation, or even psychotic episodes and the resurfacing of past traumas. "Mindfulness can have negative effects for some people, even if you're doing it for only 20 minutes a day," Wikholm added. "It's difficult to tell how common negative experiences are, because mindfulness researchers have failed to measure them, and may even have discouraged participants from reporting them by attributing the blame to them."
Of course, all of this is not to say that meditation can't still have a profoundly positive impact on the wellbeing of a great number of people. While its benefits may have been over-hyped, there's no doubt that mindful meditation can and does bring about really profoundly positive changes for many participants – it just may not be the one-size-fits-all, quick fix solution we're constantly seeking.
Meditation is by its nature a contemplative practice and, as with psychotherapy, focusing time and energy reconnecting with your mind can have both negative and positive outcomes. If you're keen to try it, seek out a well-qualified and experienced practitioner to show you the ropes, and be prepared for what meditation might bring to the surface for you. Although it's easy to dismiss meditation as just sitting still and breathing, done properly meditation is designed to take you on a journey of self-discovery – and self-discovery is hard work.