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Weighing the negative effects of mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness has been lauded as an effective meditation practice to bring people into the present moment.
Mindfulness has been lauded as an effective meditation practice to bring people into the present moment.
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Mindfulness has been lauded as an effective meditation practice to bring people into the present moment.

It’s used as a tool to beat chronic pain and anxiety, and can even promote better self-esteem. 

As a popular choice for meditation, mindfulness has even been adopted by companies such as Google, Apple and Sony as part of employee packages and the app, Headspace, offers 10-minute practices to anyone with a smartphone.

But what happens when mindfulness goes wrong?

For some, the meditative practice could trigger unprocessed emotions, bringing on negative side-effects such as panic and depression.

Larry Mantle speaks with mindfulness researchers Miguel Farias and David Creswell to weigh in on the side-effects of mindfulness and how to avoid them.

Farias, a lecturer and director of studies in psychology at Oxford Universty, has researched and written extensively on the possible negative side-effects of mindfulness. He says more research should be done on the adverse reactions of both mindfulness and other forms of meditation.

As a proponent of the practice, associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, David Creswell, notes a benign disorientation or confusion that can arise when a person begins practicing mindfulness. But he also says these feelings could be viewed positively because of how it brings awareness to emotions that may have been hiding in our consciousness. 

During the conversation, the biggest concern with Farias, Creswell and "AirTalk" callers is how mindfulness might trigger a depressive episode. 

One caller, James in Echo Park, says he's been practicing mindfulness for three years and has had what he describes as "dark night" episodes, especially when he began meditating.

James: Luckily my teacher, who was well versed in how to navigate that. I found mindfulness, mixed in combination with other behavioral therapy. . . was very helpful, and I continue to use mindfulness to benefit me, but I do know that there are pitfalls,  specifically to people who have a history of trauma and other mental illnesses or episodes."

Pablo in North Hollywood teaches mindfulness and says he exhausted or "blew out" his mindfulness experience during a retreat.

Pablo: I think that what happens with people that have a history of trauma, is that those dissociative experiences that you have in meditation are coupled with terror or anxiety or panic and then what has to happen is people have to actually get into the trauma work.

In response to the callers, Creswell stresses the importance of guidance through the practice of mindfulness meditation.

Creswell: We're giving a cautionary note about there being risks for those with pre-existing trauma . . . and there's a lot of really good evidence that the vast majority of people can really benefit from mindfulness based programs as a form of exposure therapy for working through these experiences, but . . . finding a good teacher and a structured program with which you can do this is really a key element. 


Miguel Farias, Lecturer and Director of Studies in Psychology at Oxford University and author of “The Buddha Pill” (Watkins Publishing, 2015)

J. David Creswell, Associate Professor of Psychology and Director, Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University