Nearly every month, it seems, a new study is published supporting the positive effects of meditation, which range from greater compassion to sharper focus, to longer telomeres on your DNA. While it does seem clear that meditation, when done correctly, can have many positive benefits, the possible drawbacks of meditation get hardly any attention. It’s important to keep in mind that anything powerful enough to help you is also powerful enough to hurt you, or, to put it differently, the difference between medicine and poison is the dose. The following are some caveats about meditation that are typically neglected by advocates.
Much of the praise for meditation has emphasized it’s mental health benefits. We often hear about how meditation reduces reactivity to stress, reduces anxiety, reduces rumination, increases compassion, increases feelings of equanimity, improves focus, and so on. These are all clearly desirable for anyone with a mental health issue, especially anyone struggling with major depression, anxiety disorders, or ADHD. There are even some well-publicized studies showing that meditation is about as effective as antidepressants for reducing the symptoms of depression. These studies typically focus on a treatment method called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT, which appears to reduce the risk of relapse in people with a history of recurring depression.
From this information, it’s easy to make the mistake of believing that meditation in itself is an effective treatment for mental health issues, especially depression and anxiety. In reality, meditation is more sauce than meat. MBCT, for example, is an integrated program of mindfulness meditation and evidence-based cognitive therapy techniques. Even meditation instructors emphasize that meditation is not a replacement for therapy for mental health issues. Anyone who tries to treat meditation as a stand-alone therapy may actually make their symptoms worse.
One of the ways meditation may make mental health issues worse is if you let your meditation sessions turn into marathon rumination sessions. This is very easy to do. Common meditation practice is to sit quietly and watch your breath. Everyone who has tried this knows it’s harder than it sounds. It takes quite a bit of practice before you even notice that your mind has drifted off to something else. If you already have a habit of rumination, you may sit there for 10 or 15 minutes rehashing a conversation from earlier that day until you finally remember you were supposed to be meditating. The “cognitive strengthening” of meditation comes from noticing you’ve wandered off and repeatedly bringing your attention back to the breath. However, if you forget to bring your attention back, you may end up just adding an extra 30 minutes of uninterrupted rumination to your day. Rumination is a common feature of major depression, anxiety, and PTSD, and it’s something you want to minimize as much as possible.
Another common feature of many mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety disorders, is harsh self-criticism. Ideally, meditation will help you develop greater compassion for others and for yourself. Good meditation teachers will emphasize the importance of patient and supportive self-talk as you confront the initial challenges of meditating. However, even a good meditation teacher can’t read your mind. If you are already prone to harsh self-criticism, you are likely to slip back into that habit when you can’t seem to count 10 breaths before your mind wanders off. Meditation can be extremely frustrating because thoughts are slippery. What’s more, progress is very difficult to see. It’s not like learning to play an instrument, where you can hear your progress from one week to the next; meditation is a fairly constant process of catching your mind wandering and bringing it back.
Many people also fall into the trap of trying to judge their progress by comparing their experiences to those of others. Research shows that just making these comparisons makes you less happy, even if you feel like you compare favorably. Perhaps more importantly, these kinds of comparisons undermine the acceptance and presence that mediation is meant to cultivate.
Meditation is excellent for increasing your sense of wellbeing and equanimity but some evidence suggests it may be a little too good. One study from researchers at Brown University sought to better understand the possible downsides of meditation by interviewing practitioners, including some advanced practitioners and instructors, about the challenges they’ve encountered during their practice. Notable among these were challenges having to do with motivation. About 18 percent reported anhedonia or avolition. Anhedonia means the inability to feel pleasure and is an essential symptom of depression, typically characterized by loss of interest in things you used to enjoy. Avolition is a severe lack of initiative to accomplish important tasks, also common in depression. Many participants also reported occupational impairment and half reported social impairment. While too much stress can harm your mental health, too little stress can leave you completely adrift.
In addition to these issues that might arise with a daily practice of 30 to 60 minutes, there are more serious problems that might arise from participating in intensive meditation retreats, where participants often meditate for many hours every day. Although it is rare, some people have severe symptoms including psychosis, depersonalization, acute anxiety, delusional thinking, and other issues that severely damage mental health. These episodes are common enough that there are psychologists who specialize in their treatment, such as Willoughby Britton, professor at Brown University and co-author of the paper cited above.
Even in more moderate doses, meditation is designed to quiet the brain’s default mode network, which is designed to suppress troubling memories and reinforce a coherent sense of self. When meditating, unpleasant memories may spontaneously surface, causing intense emotional distress. This can be harmful and counterproductive if you have to deal with these experiences without the support of a therapist.
While meditation is a practice that has helped many people and will continue to help many more, it’s important to remember that we’re all different and what works for most people won’t work for everyone. At Hired Power, we understand there’s no single approach to addiction recovery that works for everyone. We help our clients create and follow through on individualized recovery plans. To learn more about our services, call us today at 714-559-3919.
“I have worked with Hired Power extensively in collaboration with Clearview Treatment Programs’ individualized outpatient program. I am always impressed with their effectiveness and professionalism.”
“Thanks again for being there for us and guiding us through some rough waters. Your kindness and genuine concern deeply touched my soul and we are all grateful our paths crossed when they did. You are a truly gifted professional, keep on doing what you do so well.”
“I just want to thank Hired Power for the PRA. He was a perfect match and I can’t say enough…. He was intensely committed. This is the first time I have been clean in over 30 years. Thank you again.”
“I don’t look at you (Hired Power) as hiring a service, I look at you as saving my life.” (referring to his ability to stay sober after returning home).