Mindfulness can Also have Negative Effects

The news boasts about the health benefits of mindfulness that includes lower blood pressure, less anxiety, less depression, and feeling more grounded. I’ve even boasted about it in previous blog posts about the importance of being present and meditative. There are great advantages, but like any other therapeutic practice, it’s not for everyone.

Quick Refresher on Mindfulness

Most readers may know about mindfulness, but here’s a quick refresher. It is a set of exercises and activities, that helps keep individuals grounded and balanced by having them be aware by either listening to calming, melodious music, chanting, or counting their breaths. 

Negative Experiences with Mindfulness

Here are two individuals who have had bad experiences with mindfulness.

Thirty-seven-year-old Claire spent three months in a psychiatric ward after she was sent to a mindfulness course as part of a work training workshop. At the beginning of the workshop she found it relaxing, but after two or three hours of practice, she was experiencing panic attacks and memories of her traumatic childhood. She said, “Somehow, the course triggered things I had previously got over.”

Another experience happened to Louise, a female in her fifties and a devotee of yoga for 20 years, left for a meditation retreat and came back feeling disconnected from her body and lethargic. Her spouse took her to the doctor, who referred her to a psychiatrist. Louise was diagnosed with psychotic depression and treated for 15 years.

Researchers aren’t sure about the main mechanics of mindfulness. Is it act of meditation that results in calm emotions, or does it have to do more with stepping outside of one’s body in a safe group environment? Also, how come it only helps some people? 

Potential Consequences of Mindfulness

An unforeseen consequence of mindfulness is the creation of false memories. A study led by psychologist Brent Wilson and published in Psychological Sciences found that after one 15 minute meditation practice that included guided breathing, participants were more likely to form false memories in comparison to the control participants who just engaged in mind-wandering. Brent Wilson and his fellow authors concluded that

“When mediators embrace judgment-free awareness and acceptance, their reality monitoring accuracy may be impaired, increasing their susceptibility to false memories.” 

In an author team study led by Pablo Briñol, found that when participants physically threw away their thoughts by writing it down and throwing it in the trash, they tended to use the thoughts less in their decision making, mentally throwing it away as well. In regards to mindfulness, positive thoughts had a tendency to be thrown away as well as negative thoughts. In the study, the authors warned:

“This finding suggests that techniques involved in some mindfulness treatments can backfire–at least for some people and for some situations, particularly those in which positive thoughts are present.”

People can also misuse mindfulness by practicing it as a means to escape their problems rather than work through it and find reasonable answers. Psychologist David Brendel summarizes this danger of mindfulness practice by stating:

     “Some people use mindfulness strategies to avoid critical thinking tasks. I’ve worked with clients who, instead of rationally thinking through a career challenge or ethical dilemma, prefer to disconnect from their challenges and retreat into a meditative mindset.”

A 2009 paper in Advances in Mind-Body medicine, led by psychologist Kathleen Lustyk, wrote an in-depth view of the negative effects of mindfulness. The list included:

  • depersonalization
  • psychosis
  • anxiety
  • seizures
  • loss of appetite
  • insomnia

Meditation in the Workplace

Mindfulness training programs are becoming quite popular in workplaces and the reason is that it places the stress on the individual worker rather than the business itself. The problem with that particular frame of mind is that the three motivations that Buddhism states cause suffering–greed, ill-will, and delusion–aren’t just confined to the individual mind but can be institutionalized beyond personal control.

Unfortunately, the mindfulness movement has not addressed why stress is rampant in corporate environments. Instead, businesses have jumped onto the bandwagon of the mindfulness movement because it places the issue of severe stress onto the individual rather than businesses looking at their own potential toxic environment and fixing it.

In a Huffington Post article, Bhikkhu Bodhi, an outspoken Buddhist monk, has warned:

“absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.”

Instead of mindfulness becoming a tool to help individuals deal with the daily stresses of work, it becomes a tool that businesses can use to suppress individuals from speaking out about harsh working conditions.

Meditation, like other coping mechanisms, has both negative and positive effects. It’s not a panacea, it’s something that is dependent on the individual and their history. If a person has a history of severe mental illness, studying mindfulness should be under the guidance of a clinical professional or someone who has studied mindfulness for a long time and understands its origins in its historical context and how that context can be applied to today’s modern world.