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Meditation and mindfulness could actually worsen depression and anxiety

TextAlex Peters

A minority of people experience negative effects from meditation, a new report has found

Everyone has been feeling more stressed than usual lately with the relentless news about the virus, uncertainty around the future, financial or professional worries, and the constant back and forth from the government on what exactly we should or shouldn’t be doing.

One way people have been dealing with this stress and anxiety during lockdown is by turning to meditation and mindfulness which studies have shown can help with both mental and physical health. Headspace, one of the world’s largest meditation apps, reported that daily downloads of the app doubled between mid-March and the end of May. The number of monthly downloads for meditation app Ten Percent Happier also doubled between mid-March and April.

However, meditation might not be the best solution for everyone. A new report has found that one in 12 people who try meditation experience negative effects, usually a worsening of anxiety or depression. These numbers come from a systematic review of evidence by Dr Miguel Farias, a reader in cognitive and biological psychology at Coventry University. Dr Farias and his team combed through 55 relevant studies in medical journals and, after excluding those that had deliberately set out to find negative effects, found that on average about 8 per cent people who try meditation experience an unwanted effect.

A new report has found that one in 12 people who try meditation experience negative effects

“For most people it works fine but it has undoubtedly been overhyped and it’s not universally benevolent,” says Dr Farias. “People have experienced anything from an increase in anxiety up to panic attacks.” The team also found instances of psychosis or thoughts of suicide.

In 2019, a study led by Marco Schlosser at University College London surveyed 1232 people who had meditated at least once a week for at least two months. Just over 25 per cent of participants said they had experienced “particularly unpleasant experiences,” including anxiety, fear, or disturbed emotions, which they attributed to their meditation practice.

However, experts say that people shouldn’t be put off by these findings. Katie Sparks, a chartered psychologist and a member of the British Psychological Society, told New Scientist that negative thoughts can be a normal part of the process. “Meditation has been found to help people to relax and refocus and help them both mentally and physically,” she says but sometimes the mind can “rebel” against attempts to still thoughts. “It’s like a backlash to the attempt to control the mind, and this results in an episode of anxiety or depression.”

Rather than avoid meditation, people should try guided meditation sessions led by a teacher either in-person or on an app. “The current study could stop people participating in something which can be of benefit in the right context,” she says.

For those people who have found positive effects through meditation, try out this guided session with Project Ajna founder Giselle La Pompe-Moore.

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