As yogis we are well aware of the benefits of a meditation practice. Discovering those places within your psyche only accessible through deep listening. The elation when you experience the sensitivity that accompanies stillness. And, eventually, the feeling of union with something greater than your little, drop in the ocean Self. Personal practice aside, meditation these days is often touted as a cure-all. With mindfulness apps aplenty and courses on every city corner, many well-meaning individuals are now capitalising on this ancient practice created as an act of devotion.
With meditation’s many benefits, more and more research is being dedicated to the practice. However, not all of the findings reflect the many positive experiences. In 2017, a study from Brown University and the University of California examined the experience of 60 meditators, discovering a number of adverse side effects – from negative thinking to social impairment.
Although meditation can undoubtedly enhance your quality of life, that’s not the case for everyone. As students and teachers in a world now saturated with meditation for the masses, it’s important to understand that for some, meditation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and can, at worst, exacerbate mental health challenges.
Here are some instances in which meditation can harm more than heal.
For many, meditation gives us the opportunity to sit with unpleasant experiences from the past – finding a sense of release, and ultimately closure. However, for those who have experienced serious trauma, the meditation cushion can be a place of extreme anxiety, flashbacks and fear. Without the necessary tools to manage these flashbacks, students can be left feeling overwhelmed and unsafe.
Relaxation Induced Anxiety
Although meditation can have incredible positive outcomes for some people experiencing stress and anxiety, for others it can increase it – a phenomena known as ‘relaxation-induced anxiety’ or RIA. Research shows that about 15% of people are prone to this, experiencing anxiety every time their body switches into the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). Overcoming this fear of relaxation is certainly possible, but should be done in a therapeutic environment, not on the mat.
For experienced meditators, a level of depersonalization may be a familiar part of your practice. That sense that you are not quite real, or that you’re looking at yourself from the outside in. However, for some people this can be terrifying. Sometimes, this depersonalization is the body’s stress response removing you from yourself when faced with extreme difficulties or emotional triggers.
For someone with Depersonalization Disorder, meditation can exacerbate their feelings of disconnection, leaving them feeling less grounded in reality. There are some styles of meditation that can be helpful for this disorder, but they should be practiced with an experienced teacher who is trained in mental health.
If you are someone who tends towards procrastination, meditation could be bad news. Meditation may lead practitioners to lose interest in previously enjoyed activities – similar to the effects of depression. Although this non-attachment is often something long-term meditators strive for, for someone who doesn’t understand the philosophies behind the practice this lack of motivation could be damaging.
Like anything that momentarily relieves you from life’s inevitable suffering, meditation practice can become addictive, leaving some people unable to function without their daily practice. Those who experience bliss during their meditation may find themselves sitting relentlessly, constantly chasing that elated feeling and, ironically, becoming attached to it.
Of course meditation is a much healthier addiction than many others, but it still has the potential to create upsets in relationships and other practical aspects of life. Compulsive meditation may have the negative impact of becoming a competition, moving you further away from the true goals of the practice.
It’s not meditation itself that causes these problems. However, the practice has the very real potential to exacerbate existing mental health issues when not practiced carefully. Students should practice with an experienced teacher who can support them through the peaks and valleys of their practice, and provide them with all of the necessary information to facilitate their journey – including the darker sides of the practice.