About a quarter of those trying meditation report having at least one ‘particularly unpleasant’ psychological experience regarding this practice.

Buddhist monk meditating.

Image credits Sasin Tipchai.

Meditation gets a lot of attention these days, and there is some data to support their beneficial effect. But it’s not all mantras and roses, a new study found — a sizeable chunk of those who try their hand at the practice reported experiencing unpleasant effects.

The deep within

“These findings point to the importance of widening the public and scientific understanding of meditation beyond that of a health-promoting technique,” says first author Marco Schlosser, a researcher at the University College London (UCL) Division of Psychiatry.

“Very little is known about why, when, and how such meditation-related difficulties can occur: more research is now needed to understand the nature of these experiences. When are unpleasant experiences important elements of meditative development, and when are they merely negative effects to be avoided?”

These ‘particularly unpleasant’ experiences include feelings of fear and distorted emotions, the team reports. People who only practice deconstructive types of meditation — for example Vipassana (insight) and Koan practice (used in Zen Buddhism) — were more likely to experience such effects, as were those with higher levels of repetitive negative thinking, the team reports. However, female participants and those with religious beliefs were less likely to go through an unpleasant meditation-related experience.

The team used an online survey through which they questioned 1,232 people across the world who had at least two months’ meditation experience. Researchers at Witten/Herdecke University, Germany, and the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, also participated in the study. They wanted to understand why some people experience unpleasant psychological effects during meditative practice — a trend illustrated by a growing number of research reports and case studies, they add. A collection of traditional Buddhist texts also tell of similar experiences in practitioners of yore, which further piqued the team’s interest.

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Participants were asked whether they have “ever had any particularly unpleasant experiences (e.g. anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, altered sense of self or the world), which you think may have been caused by your meditation practice?” They were also asked about how long they’ve been practicing meditation, the frequency with which they practice, whether or not they had attended a meditation retreat at any point in their life, and what form of meditation they practiced (attentional, constructive, or deconstructive). They also completed measures of repetitive negative thinking and self-compassion.

The results

Of the 1,232 participants:

  • 25.6% said that they had previously encountered particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences.
  • More male participants experienced a particularly unpleasant experience than female participants (28.5% vs 23% ).
  • More of those who did not have a religious belief had a particularly unpleasant experience, compared to those who had a religious belief (30.6% vs 22%).
  • 29.2% of the participants who practiced only deconstructive types of meditation reported a particularly unpleasant experience, compared to 20.3% who only engaged in other meditation types.
  • 29% of those who had been on a meditation retreat (at any point in life) had a particularly unpleasant experience, compared to 19.6%, who had never been on a retreat.

“Most research on meditation has focused on its benefits, however, the range of meditative experiences studied by scientists needs to be expanded,” Schlosser adds.

“It is important at this point not to draw premature conclusions about the potential negative effects of meditation. Longitudinal studies will help to learn when, for whom, and under what circumstances these unpleasant experiences arise, and whether they can have long-term effects. This future research could inform clinical guidelines, mindfulness manuals, and meditation teacher training.”

It’s important to note that the present study doesn’t provide any indication of what these ‘unpleasant experiences’ were. In other words, it doesn’t have any way to quantify their severity and impact — which is a common limitation of self-reported data. Furthermore, the team writes that their inclusion of a list of specific examples (i.e., anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, altered sense of self or the world) in the questionnaire may have biased participants’ responses towards recalling these particular experiences over others. The study also didn’t assess possible pre-existing mental health problems, which could have confounded the prevalence estimate of particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences.

In less-fancy, less-science speak, this study cannot and should not be used as an indication that meditation caused these unpleasant experiences. However, it does show that the two can go hand-in-hand, and do so for a meaningful number of participants. Exactly why, how, and what that means, however, is something we still have to work to understand.

The paper “Unpleasant meditation-related experiences in regular meditators: Prevalence, predictors, and conceptual considerations” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.