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Taking deep breaths, noticing your body – you are trying your best to practice mindfulness. But instead of finding a relaxed mind, you find a stressed one. That traditional Tibetan singing bowl you splurged on suddenly seems like such a waste.
If meditation doesn’t seem to improve your mental health significantly, know that you are not alone. A 2018 scientific report entitled “The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis," may be relevant for you. That meta-analysis suggests that practicing meditation typically only has a minor influence on a person’s wellness.
Which is probably contradictory to suggestions you’ve heard about the great power of meditation.
For example, “If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, the world will be without violence within one generation," said the current Dalai Lama.
People experience negative meditation sessions
Not only does meditation appear to not be revolutionarily impactful to the average practitioner – but it can also negatively impact an individual’s mental health.
Supporting that assertion is a study associated with the University College London (UCL), which surveyed 1232 people who had at least two months of meditation experience. The UCL study found that a quarter of those surveyed experienced an adverse psychological reaction such as fear and anxiety due to a meditation session.
The lead researcher of the UCL study, Marco Schlosser, commented on how negative meditation experiences deserve further attention. “Most research on meditation has focused on its benefits, however, the range of meditative experiences studied by scientists needs to be expanded," he said.
Willoughby Britton, the current director of Brown University’s Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, is improving that body of research. In 2017, she published, “The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists." It’s the most extensive research study regarding meditation-related issues.
Britton told VICE News that she has noticed some trends in people’s meditation produced negative issues. Those trends include feelings of hyperarousal, hypersensitivity and disembodiment.
Meditators can experience hyperarousal
According to Britton, people report feelings of hyperarousal as a meditation produced challenge. Hyperarousal encompasses the severe pains of anxiety, insomnia, flashbacks and emotional turmoil, etc.
“Morality can be divorced from spirituality. My ego can dissolve while I meditate. But when I get up, it’s reconstructed. You can meditate 22 hours a day, but in those two hours you have left, you’re a human being living in matter, and this aspect of reality doesn’t care too much if you’re enlightened or not," Britton explained.
Meditators can experience hypersensitivity to light and sound
Yes, hypersensitivity to sensory input is also a state meditation can produce. While that altered perception might not sound so bad, it can become unbearable for some people. Britton explained how sounds, for example, can become unbearable when amplified. And that noise sensitivity can cause a person not to want to leave their home, for fear of the noisy world.
Meditators can experience disembodiment
Some people can feel, as a result of meditation, detached from their body.
“People describe a loss of emotion beyond what they wanted and loss of motivation or enjoyment of things," Britton elaborated.
These observations, at least, could be viewed as useful information. The people who have been part of Britton’s virtual support group for negative meditation experiences would likely agree that there’s no perfect coping mechanism for everyone. So if you haven’t found meditation to be particularly healing, there may be a better practice out there for you.
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