Can meditation be bad for you? It depends on who you ask! Studies on the negative effects of meditation are limited but a study from Brown University shows that meditation may produce other effects besides their health-related outcomes.
How The Study Was done
It is important to realize that there exist different forms of meditation such as mindful meditation and transcendental meditation. The study from Brown University focused on Buddhist meditation (which many other forms of meditation may be based on ). For this study, buddhist practitioners in Zen, Theravāda and Tibetan traditions were interviewed.
The practitioners performed a follow-up survey using quantitative measures to assess impairment and other variables which yielded 59 separate experiences to affect 7 domains: somatic, perceptual, affective, cognitive, sense of self, and social.
Subjects who had challenging meditation experiences were deliberately chosen. (So the study was representative of a specific group that already demonstrated a failure to maintain positive meditation experiences.)
Interestingly, cases which yielded the same phenomenology(appearance of things) had different reported experiences across the participants, some which were very negative and some very positive.
To determine the cause of the disturbances the research documented 26 possible factors that could have influenced the results to include: relationships, practitioner-level factors, and health behavior.
What Was Found
Reported effects ranged from delusions, to joy and psychosis.Keep in mind that these practitioners were deliberately chosen and identified by risk factors that made them likely to experience negative meditation effects. The results of the study may not represent what the public in general may experience..
Psychosis and Fear
Bliss and joy could be followed up by depression and agitation. 82% of practitioners reported fear, anxiety and paranoia. Experiences ranged from “troubling experiences of self,” “reality being challenged,” and one case resulted in psychosis hospitalization. Perhaps more neutrally, some reported feeling less or the complete absence of emotions.
Reduced need for sleep, nightmares, and body movements
In the domain relating to the body, practitioners reported “voltage” and “currents” of energy running through their bodies. The release of tension was viewed positively but could also result in involuntary body movements. Other less documented changes included headaches, dizziness, breathing irregularities, cardiac irregularities, fatigue, and sexuality-related changes.
Amongst changes commonly reported: a reduced need for sleep, insomnia, and other sleep-related problems arose to include lucid dreams and nightmares. Appetite changes were commonly reported with the sleep changes, to include a decreased need for food intake. Other reports included distortions in time and space and dreamlike states.
Heighten Senses and Blindness
Some practitioners reported hypersensitivity to sound, sensation, increased light sensitivity, increased color vividness and hallucinations of visual lights. This often went in hand with increased cognitive processing. In some instances, the cessation of all visual perception was reported. On some minor occasions thermal changes were reported (feeling warmer or colder throughout the body.)
Key takeaways from the study:
It’s important to note that meditators who previously experience challenging results meditating were deliberately sampled. The study was specifically designed to explore the negative effects of meditation and may not be representative of experiences in general. Practitioners may have been motivated by their own religious goals or other criteria that could have influenced the results of their meditation.
Generally; however, practitioners were generally concerned with practicing for a period of 1 hour or less ( with the first 50 hours aimed at stress-reduction, health or well being. )
For such a limited sample set: the results may not be a good sample of Asia-American practitioners and may not be a good indicator of what people may experience in general. In this study, 73% had doctoral degrees with lower-than-average rates of trauma and mental illness.
The study may be able to generalize some samples but not all. Further research must be conducted to examine the full impact of negative experience that may arise from meditiang. The study provides preliminary steps to identifying practitioner-level factors that may require changes in meditation structure and the evaluation of risk factors that might produce unintended results.
Be sure to read more studies from plos.org also read on all the benefits of meditation here