Meditation And Mindfulness May Lead To Anxiety, Other Adverse Effects In Some: Study


Sep 1, 2020


Image Credit: Getty Images

According to a new study, meditation and mindfulness, which are widely perceived as stress-reduction techniques, can also have adverse effects like anxiety, depression, and much less frequently, even suicidal behaviors.

Published this month in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, the study concluded that the overall prevalence of adverse events of meditation was 8.3 percent. Having performed a meta-analysis of 83 studies published between 1975 and 2019, with a total of 6,703 participants, the researchers found that 55 of these 83 studies included reports of at least one type meditation-related adverse effect. The most common adverse effects of meditation the researchers found were: anxiety, reported in 33 percent of the studies, depression in 27 percent, and cognitive anomalies in 25 percent. Gastrointestinal problems, and suicidal behaviors, were both found in 11 percent of the studies reviewed by the authors, and were the least frequent among the adverse effects.

“For most people [meditation] works fine but it has undoubtedly been overhyped and it’s not universally benevolent… People have experienced anything from an increase in anxiety up to panic attacks,” Dr. Miguel Farias, who leads the Brain, Belief and Behaviour research group at Coventry University in the UK, and lead author of the study, told New Scientist. He also added that the figure of 8.3 percent could be an underestimate because a lot of studies either record only serious negative effects, or don’t record adverse effects at all.

Related on The Swaddle:

Study Kills Our Hopes That Meditation Will Make Us Better People

The researchers noted that they could not ascertain whether individuals with a mental health history were more vulnerable to experiencing these adverse effects. But, in the course of the meta-analysis, they did find that people with no history of mental health disorders had experienced adverse effects of meditation — either during, or following, their meditation practice. But, Katie Sparks, a chartered psychologist and a member of the British Psychological Society, who was not involved in the study, expressed concerns that the adverse effects could be attributed to people trying out meditation because of undiagnosed anxiety or depression. But, she added that sometimes, when people attempt to “still their thoughts,” the mind can “rebel” — “It’s like a backlash to the attempt to control the mind, and this results in an episode of anxiety or depression,” she said. However, she also opined that instead of being completely discouraged to try meditation, people can opt for guided meditation sessions.

A 2019 study of 1,232 people had found that over 25 percent of the participants reported experiencing “particularly unpleasant” emotions like “anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts,” which they believed “may have been caused by their meditation practice.” And even though existing research suggests that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can help with sleep disorders, reducing stress-symptoms, and even curtailing addiction, experts worry about the lack of rigorous evidence on the subject, alongside inconsistent definitions of mindfulness.

The study cites a 1977 recommendation by the American Psychiatric Association, which had stated that: “research [must] be undertaken in the form of well‐controlled studies to evaluate the possible specific usefulness, indication, contraindications, and dangers of meditative techniques.” But now, in 2020, the researchers note how it has taken decades to even acknowledge that there “might be a bias towards exaggerating the clinical benefits of meditation practice and dismissing its potential adverse effects.”


Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

  1. Michael Grimes

    This study appears to make no distinction between different types of meditation. As such, its findings are completely worthless.

  2. Pradeep Vishnu Misal

    Title of the article is misleading the people.
    When you get stress and anxiety after meditation, then you have followed wrong techniques.


  3. Dori

    I would imagine that stilling the mind would be traumatic for some. However, most mindfulness programs do not teach stilling the mind, but rather using an anchor to focus on when the mind wanders off and gets involved in the thought steam. And while there are still concerns with this practice, we should agree on terminology and what type of meditation was reviewed in these studies.

  4. Ashok Nagdeve

    Have you personally experience such problem while meditation. Buddha’s technique of anapana sati or mindfulness is for liberation from Darrow, dukha and attaianed nirvana and not for for stress management as prevaing in West, they are running shops for same. Do not blem the ancient technique, it s fault of people or their trainer, they are not efficient.

  5. TLC

    The published article looked at many different types of meditation and even included studies from the 1970’s! Also, most of the information for the study came from two studies for which people simply self-selected to participate online! (not very scientific!)
    The following brand new, large, carefully conducted study specifically focused on whether there is harm in mindfulness programs and they not only found that there is no increased rates of harm, but also that mindfulness meditation can prevent an individual from developing mental illness:

    Hirshberg, M. J., Goldberg, S., Rosenkranz, M. A., & Davidson, R. J. (2020). Prevalence of harm in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Prevalence of harm in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Psychological Medicine.

  6. Sujai James

    If you don’t get trained by an instructor or a Guru. You’ll land in trouble.

  7. Michele

    Fascinating that the article headline and opening paragraph mention meditation *and mindfulness* but the rest of the article does not (nor do the citations that are actually linked in the article). Not all meditation is grounded in mindfulness. The article talks about the anxiety often stemming from trying to quiet the mind but mindfulness does not involve *trying* to quiet the mind.

  8. Mohanakrishnan

    Apropos the article on meditation, Yoga Sutra classifies meditation and concentration as separate practices. Meditation is called “Dhyana” and concentration is called “Dharana”. “Meditation” IS NOT “concentration”. Concentration comes after prolonged practice of meditation. Hence any attempt to “still the mind” is not adviced in The practice of meditation. While meditating the “mantra” and extraneous thoughts or “,Observation” of breathing should proceed in parallel tracks. No attempt should be made to suppress extraneous thoughts. They will get suppressed and mind becomes still after long practice. Hence whatever “bad effects”, pointed out in this article is due to WRONG PRACTICE OF MEDITATION. THEY ARE NOT THE NORMAL EFFECTS OF MEDITATION. ..


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields *.

The latest in health, gender & culture in India -- and why it matters. Delivered to your inbox weekly.