Debate: Can mindfulness and meditation be harmful?

Yes (in perhaps 8% of individuals). Can mindfulness and meditation be harmful? (Science Focus):

Meditation has escaped both the religious cells of monks and nuns and the labs of scientists. An increasing number of people are using meditation apps to deal with mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. Although there is no clear estimate of how many people are practising meditation, last year one single app had close to 40 million downloads.

But now my new study, which reviews over 40 years of the science of meditation and mindfulness-based therapies, suggests that these practices can also lead to negative effects in about 8 per cent of individuals — from increases in anxiety, depression and stress, to unusual experiences like hallucinations.

This sounds counterintuitive, given the thousands of scientific studies exploring the positive effects of meditation. But this study also indicates that scientists have been aware of these problems for a long time … We hope our study will motivate scientists to seek a more balanced understanding of when, for whom, and under what circumstances meditation can be beneficial, or harmful, and it will pressure commercial meditation/mindfulness apps and course providers to raise their ethical standards – at the very least, they should be obliged to inform the public that meditation is not a panacea, it doesn’t work for everyone, and it may produce negative effects.

No (at least when we talk about widely available programs and compare intervention vs. control group rates…but we need to better define “harm”). Research Suggests Common Mindfulness Program Unlikely to Cause Harm (Center for Healthy Minds at U Wisconsin-Madison):

Potential side effects are often front and center when considering taking medicine for physical or mental conditions, but information is less clear with treatments like meditation that don’t come in pill form.

Popular media and case studies have recently highlighted negative side effects from meditation—increases in depression, anxiety, and even psychosis or mania—but few studies have looked at the issue in depth across large numbers of people.

In a recent paper featured in the journal Psychological Medicine, researchers at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison found that people who took part in the most common and widely available secular mindfulness program did not experience psychological harm at a rate higher than people in control groups who did not take part in the program…

Another question to explore further is the subjective interpretation of harm. In some meditation traditions, temporary discomfort, negative thoughts and unusual somatic experiences might be indicative of progress in one’s practice. “The distinction is not always made clear enough when we hear about cases of harm,” says Hirshberg. “Meditation practice means many different things, from intensive meditation retreats for months or even years to 10 minutes of daily practice at home. Most reported cases of harm are related to more intensive practice. They are really different categories. We can’t infer about harm in intensive practice from these findings and similarly, we cannot infer about potential harm in MBSR or similar programs from harm following intensive practice.”


What’s your take?


The Debate in Context:

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Debate: Can mindfulness and meditation be harmful?