I’ve been a big fan and advocate for mindfulness and meditation for the past several years. But today, I am here to warn about the dangers of meditation from what I have witnessed first-hand. Just like how some people prefer martial arts over yoga because yoga is very slow, “meditation” is not suitable for everyone.
Meditation and mindfulness have become such big buzzwords in the past decade, that even some mental health experts are recommending it. When I first heard about the warning signs at a conference, I completely ignored it. Now that I have witnessed people close to me negatively impacted by it, I would tell everyone to “proceed with caution”.
The definition of meditation that I will use is: “to engage in mental exercise (such as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
1. Meditation is NOT suitable for individuals with severe mental health illnesses.
Meditation is not suitable for individuals who have:
- Substance use disorder
- Active suicidality
- Bipolar disorder
- Severe symptoms of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) or social anxiety
(Source: Women’s College Hospital)
I have witnessed first-hand how meditation could further push an individual to think even more negativity about themselves or about the world. Anyone who you suspect having mental health issues should first consult a health care professional before engaging in meditation or meditation retreats.
2. New meditation practitioners should be warned about side effects of meditation.
Meditating in Safety (UK) lists the following side effects. If any of these symptom persists, stop meditation immediately and seek a doctor or mental health professional:
- Increased anxiety, including panic attacks
- Deterioration of mood, worsening of depression
- Feelings of disorientation, dissociation, depersonalisation
- Visual or auditory hallucinations
- Lack of focus, hyperactive behaviour
- Remembering difficult or traumatic memories
To download a student leaflet, visit: http://meditatinginsafety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/A5-Student-Leaflet.pdf
If you are a meditation teacher or retreat leader: http://meditatinginsafety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/A5-Teacher-Leaflet.pdf
3. Individuals who are overthinkers/perfectionists (like me) may not find relief.
I’ve heard time and time again from individuals, who think a lot, feel overwhelmed when doing meditation. The intent of meditation is to invite thoughts to come and then let it go. But for some individuals, even observing the thoughts can be too anxiety-provoking. If this happens, don’t continue the practice!!
To get out of it, you may choose to just take a few deep breaths and distract yourself with your senses (what do you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste). You don’t need to force yourself to do sitting meditation. There are many other practices of mindfulness you can engage in. Here’s a listing of 71 Mindfulness Exercises.
Safety Tips for Meditation Practitioners
After talking about the side effects, here are some safety tips for meditation practitioners:
1. Practice meditation with a group or a buddy.
Find a group that you feel comfortable with and practice with that group. If you don’t have a group, find a buddy who can check-in with you to see how you are doing. If you have a particular faith, connect with people in your faith for support. Sometimes, meditation is also seen as “prayer” in some cultures and faiths.
2. Stop practicing if you are experiencing any negative symptoms.
If you experience any low moods, anxiety, problems sleeping, or physical symptoms such as shaking or hyperventilating, make sure you stop your current meditation, talk to a friend, and seek professional help if needed.
3. If you are new to meditation, do NOT engage in silent meditation or retreats (Vipassana).
If you are brand new to meditation, do NOT engage in silent meditation or retreats until at least a couple of years of practice. Try guided meditation with friends or download a reputable app (Calm or Headspace).
Here’s a tragic story of Megan who lost her life at 25 years old from attending a silent retreat: “The darker side of meditation: please meditate responsibly”
Just like engaging in new physical exercise or taking new medication, it is important to know the dangers and side effects before fully engaging in them. Meditation has helped thousands of people find peace and joy in their lives, but always be aware of the limitations when introducing it to someone new.
I wish everyone a peaceful and positive journey.