One in four who meditate regularly have a bad experience, study suggests

The survey found that more male respondents had a negative meditated-related experience than female

Katie O'Malley
Thursday 09 May 2019 19:00
Bob Roth talks to Ellen about the benefits of adding transcendental meditation to your daily routine

More than a quarter of people who regularly meditate have had a “particularly unpleasant” psychological experienced as a result, a new survey suggests.

The study, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, involved 1,232 participants who had at least two months’ meditation experience answering an international online survey.

Participants were asked to answer the question “Have you 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?”.

In the survey, meditators also reported how long they had been practicing meditation, the frequency of practice, whether they had ever attended a meditation retreat, and what form of meditation they practiced (attentional, constructive, or deconstructive). They also completed measures of repetitive negative thinking and self-compassion.

The study was conducted by researchers at Witten/Herdecke University, Germany, and the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

The results from the survey showed that more than one in four respondents (25.6 per cent) said that they had previously encountered “particularly unpleasant” meditation-related experiences.

More male participants (28.5 per cent), had endured a negative experience compared to female participants (23 per cent).

Meanwhile, almost a third (30.6 per cent) of those who didn’t have a religious belief had a similar negative “trip”, compared to more than one in five (22 per cent) of those with a religious belief.

When it came to the types of meditation participants practice, almost a third of people (29.2 per cent) who practiced only deconstructive types of meditation (such as Vipassana and Koan practice) reported a similarly bad experience, compared to one in five (20.3 per cent) who only engaged in other types of meditation.

The same was said for almost a third (29 per cent) of those who had been on a meditation retreat at some point in their life, compared with one in five (19.6 per cent) of people who had never been on a retreat.

Lead author, researcher Marco Schlosser at the University College London Division of Psychiatry, said: “These findings point to the importance of widening the public and scientific understanding of meditation beyond that of a health-promoting technique.

“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?”

As for the limitations of the study, participants were only asked one question to find out the prevalence of the negative meditation-related experiences. As a result, the findings don’t provide any further information about the type of experiences, its severity or impact.

Moreover, as it was an observational study, researchers were unable to find a cause and effect between mediation and negative experiences. It also did not assess possible pre-existing medical conditions that may have affected the perception of bad meditation-related experiences.

However, Schlosser called for more studies to be carried out to help researchers learn when, for whom and under what circumstances these “unpleasant experiences” arise and the possible long-term effects.

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“This future research could inform clinical guidelines, mindfulness manuals, and meditation teacher training,” he added.

In November 2018, a study found that soldiers living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) benefit as much from transcendental meditation – an ancient Indian practice involves reciting a mantra internally – as they do from ”exposure therapy” where they are coached to relive their combat experiences.

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