Meditation causes 'particularly unpleasant' effects in many people

Meditation has become a popular activity in many countries, where it is generally presented as a positive lifestyle habit that potentially improves mental and physical health. Research over past years has linked meditation practices to a number of possible benefits, including decreased stress and lowered blood pressure. However, a new study warns that many people report 'particularly unpleasant' meditation experiences.

Meditating for health

Meditation has a long history, and though it remains a spiritual practice for many, a growing number of people have adopted regular meditation practice from a secular lifestyle and health standpoint. Different meditation practices exist, but the most common in the Western world is arguably mindfulness meditation.

Personal meditation practice is more accessible than ever due to the skyrocketing popularity of mobile meditation apps, which enable anyone to participate in meditation sessions using a phone. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, multiple studies have found that meditating may reduce blood pressure, IBS symptoms, insomnia, and issues with depression and anxiety.

Study hints at risk

Researchers with University College London have touched on an aspect of meditation that gets less attention: the potential for unwanted or unpleasant effects. According to a study the team published in PLOS ONE, around 25% of regular meditators have experienced 'particularly unpleasant' psychological experiences while meditating.

These unpleasant experiences including 'distorted emotions' and fear. The team also found that people who are prone to engaging in repetitive negative thinking, as well people who practice deconstructive meditation practices like Vipassana, are more likely to report having experienced something unpleasant.

The research involved 1,232 people who had regularly practiced meditation for a minimum of two months. Of the participants, the study notes that religious individuals and women were less likely to report having experienced one of these unwanted experiences. The reasons for the negative experiences, as well as how common they are in the wider meditation community, remain unclear.

The study's limits

The researchers note some limitations associated with this study, particularly a lack of data on whether the participants had a pre-existing mental health issue that potentially contributed to the effects.

The study's lead author Marco Schlosser also touches upon another aspect of these negative experiences, namely that some of them may be part of the process. "When are unpleasant experiences important elements of meditative development," Schlosser said, "and when are they merely negative effects to be avoided?"

Additional research into meditation is necessary to determine the nature of these negative experiences.