Mindfulness Meditation Is Not for Everyone

Meditation has known benefits, both research-based and anecdotal. But little in this life works for everyone, and there is reason to believe that meditation can impair the mental health of some people. If this is you, then I give you permission to quit smoking. No guilt.

Which reminded me to say that this is a New Scientist article about a study (not yet available online) that showed that some people – 8% they say – experience negative effects from meditation, such as increased anxiety. Meanwhile, a study last year found that 25% of people who meditate regularly have at times experienced “unpleasant meditation experiences.”

Of course, sometimes something worthwhile can be unpleasant; I play a lot of sports and find that it has improved my mental and physical health, but I would definitely answer in the affirmative if you asked me if I had any unpleasant experiences with exercise. One bad day doesn’t invalidate the whole chase.

But there is a strange rigidity in many meditation practices. I remember the whole introduction to Headspace was a gentle voice telling me exactly what to do and reassuring me that if I followed the instructions, I would get better in the end. Some apps reward streaks or force you to do meditations in a specific way or in a specific order.

On the other hand, if you go into free form and just breathe mindfully while thinking or listening to music, it can make some of us rethink things. Psychologist Katie Sparks told New Scientist that guided meditations can be “safer” by helping to keep thoughts in a good place. Or, as my editor said when he shared a link with me, “Perhaps now [we] don’t want to live in the moment more than ever?”

One thing is clear: While meditation has helped many people, it is probably wrong to think of it as a miracle cure or essential brain support. The latter is a point of view that we have discussed in the past , but I think it deserves a caveat: meditation as maintenance is a useful metaphor for many of us, but it is not a universal solution.

Therefore, if you have tried meditation to avoid anxiety or depression and find that it only makes the situation worse, not improves it, quit. Or try a different type. Replace free-form meditations with guided meditations, or vice versa. After all, if what you are doing to relax is not relaxing, it may be time to trust your intuition and move on.


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