To meditate safely, you need to understand the negative side effects of meditation. Dangers are real. Especially if you meditate too much. And for the sake of safety, it is best to be aware of both the pros and cons of meditation.
Yes, there are significant benefits of meditation
There’s also risks, though. Many of which no one has fully covered until now.
But as science continues to examine the effects of this ancient practice, we are uncovering some alarming potential dangers of meditating. And yes, the adverse side effects of meditation are real.
In this article, I will reveal the scientifically proven dangers of meditating. They include headaches, seizures, anxiety, mental illness, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, weight loss, insomnia, psychosis, and hallucinations.
Be safe: Know the Negative Side Effects of Meditation
The Buddhist Dharmatrāta Meditation Scripture states that meditation must be practised properly. Otherwise, it will lead to a restless mind. And recent research published on Wiley shows that meditation can cause anxiety, depression, stress, and other problems in approximately 8% of the population [M. Farias et. al.]
Don’t get me wrong. If we compare the pros and cons of meditation, it is clear that it is a wonderful practice for our health. However, we should bear in mind the potential risks.
1: Can meditation cause anxiety?
You have probably heard that some techniques like mindfulness can cure anxiety.
That’s undeniably true. However, many people ask me: Can meditation cause anxiety. And ironically, the answer is yes.
Research shows that some methods may, in fact, harm people with a history of anxiety and depression. Such people may feel increased anxiety, fear, stress, panic, and low moods when meditating.
Research conducted by Brown University neuroscientist Dr Willoughby Britton shows that feelings of fear and anxiety are a common negative effect of meditation.
Dr Britton has stated that during a retreat she felt like she “was having a nervous breakdown.” She later learned that intense practices could lead to symptoms severe enough to warrant a psychiatric diagnosis (1).
Sarah Bowen, a researcher at the University of Washington, suggests that people who have a history of depression or anxiety should only meditate under expert guidance in case stressful, painful, or upsetting thoughts arise.
Neurobiologist Dr Nancy Hayes states that “Patients with emotional disorders may have adverse reactions to meditation.”
Neuroscientist Dr Solomon Snyder adds that certain techniques raise the level of serotonin in the brain, which is one reason meditation can cause anxiety. He notes that many people with emotional disorders experience distress and panic attacks while meditating. And patients who have schizophrenia can experience psychosis as a direct result of the practice.
2: Does meditation cause seizures?
The practice is known to produce mental calmness and changes in autonomic functioning (2). Plus, it can be highly beneficial for blood pressure and heart rate. But one negative side effect of meditation is that it can cause seizures.
Research into epilepsy has used neuroimaging to study the effects of the practice. These studies reveal that meditative states alter the neurochemistry and neurophysiology of the brain and can lead to epileptogenesis (3).
Epilepsy is caused by hypersynchrony of EEG activity and the rise in brain glutamate and serotonin (3). Any of these factors can change susceptibility to epilepsy.
Because it is known to lead to these changes, there is a belief in the scientific world that some methods of meditation could cause seizures. Research into this is still taking place.
Neuroscientist Dr Michael Persinger at Leurentian University of Canada researched the relationship between seizures and meditation.
In 1993 he studied 1,018 meditators. The results of his research show that meditation can lead to symptoms of partial epilepsy, including hearing voices, feeling vibrations, and experiencing visual abnormalities. Epileptic patients suffer from auditory and visual hallucinations, with many believing that they have spiritual experiences, including speaking with God.
Persinger has subsequently researched the experience of so-called “spiritual events.” In his tests, Persinger had patients wear helmets through which were passed electrical signals that led to magnetically induced seizures. Four out of every five of his test subjects stated that they had experienced a spiritual event. In fact, they were experiencing epileptic events.
3: Can meditation cause Headaches?
We know that the practice can help to stop pains, but meditation can cause headaches.
There are several reasons for this.
Firstly, many practitioners struggle to focus the mind during practice. The effort to change mental state is met with psychological resistance and the desire to keep things unchanged. This conflict causes psychological and physical tension. And that is why meditation can cause headaches.
Certain techniques—Third Eye Chakra Dhyana, for instance—involve quite forcefully focusing the mind. Therefore, it is little surprise that headaches are a common negative side effect of meditation.
For beginners, the practice of focusing the mind can be a challenge. If we are not accustomed to focusing the mind, the strain of doing so can cause discomfort and pain. And this can cause headaches.
Perhaps the most critical factor in understanding the link between meditation and headaches is the serious transformation that takes place in your brain.
The practice increases electrical activity in the brain (5). While this can have some benefits (such as increasing intelligence), it can cause pain and discomfort.
It can be quite jarring to go from a natural state to a meditative state and then back again. The sudden change in state is another cause of strain.
To avoid this, practise gentle techniques. And always finish by sitting and relaxing for a few minutes to give yourself time to adjust. Simple techniques like mindfulness and breath-based methods are usually the safest meditations.
4: Can meditation cause panic attacks?
Just like it can cause anxiety, meditation can cause panic attacks. This is especially true if you use techniques that address emotional conflicts. These can result in heightened emotions that could cause panic attacks.
This is one of the most common negative side effects of meditation.
If you have a history of panic attacks, I strongly advise you to consult a doctor before practising.
Zen teacher Geoffrey Dawson has stated that he has met more than twenty people who experienced “Panic attacks, depressive episodes, and manic episodes” from meditation. (6)
5: The most shocking danger of meditation is… potential death?!
There is some evidence to show that a severe negative side effect of meditation is, well, death.
While it is improbable that it will cause death, it is not impossible.
It is known that seizures can cause death. And meditation can cause seizures, as we have seen above. Therefore, there is the possibility of meditation causing death in people who are prone to seizures.
People who have a history of seizures, panic attacks or any psychological disorders must consult a doctor before beginning.
6: Hypersensitivity To Light And Sound
Are you hypersensitive to light and sound? We’ve got some bad news for you. This is one of the negative side effects of meditation.
Brown University researchers recently interviewed 100 meditators and teachers and asked them about the side effects that they had experienced. A significant portion of the interviewees stated that they had been experiencing hypersensitivity to light and sound, as well as insomnia, occasional involuntary movements, and feelings of fear, anxiety, and panic. (7)
There are limits to the study, though. The study did not consider where the interviewee learned to practice or the quality or length of their tuition. Part of safe practice is proper tuition. And we do not know how well educated the test subjects were.
The researchers tell us that they are not trying to put people off of meditation. But it is vital to know about these symptoms because sensitivity to light and sound can cause discomfort and unease. And unlike light sensitivity disorder, which is a severe condition, it is easy to stop meditating if we need to.
Jared Lindahl, visiting assistant professor at Brown’s Cogut Center for Humanities and co-author of the study spoke to TODAY. He said, “We’re not trying to scare people away from trying it. There is data that many people find tremendous benefits of these practices.” He states that it’s essential to have a good idea of the pros and cons of meditating before beginning. (8)
The degree of the hypersensitivity to light and sound, and the extremity of insomnia, varied between different people. Some people were much less sensitive to sounds and light than others.
If you have hypersensitivity to light and sound, and you want to practice safely, consult a doctor and consider either stopping practice or changing your technique.
I suggest moving off of any method that involves oneness (such as Dhyana). These techniques put your consciousness in closer contact with the focus-object. This trains the mind to focus more fully on what you’re looking at. Then, when you see bright lights, you may inadvertently focus on them too much, causing complications.
7: Movement problems
One interesting study comes from the University of Pennsylvania and Dr Andrew Newberg, who studied the brains of long-term meditators.
Newberg observed that blood flow to the posterior superior parietal lobe decreased during meditation (10). This is the part of the brain involved with navigating our environment.
“Patients with damaged posterior superior parietal lobes often cannot move without falling,” says Newberg. He states that oneness could have hidden negative side effects. By blocking blood flow to the posterior superior parietal lobe, you “lose the boundary between yourself and the rest of the world.” This can lead to disorientation and falls.
8: Mental atrophy
Another study into the negative side effects of meditation was conducted by Arthur Chappell, a former Maharaj devotee. He states that the practice “Deprives the mind of stimulus”, leading to sensory deprivation.
Here, of course, many people will protest.
Many methods stimulate the mind and create awareness. When we are more aware of our surroundings, we find more stimulation, not less.
This is undoubtedly true for many techniques. But it depends on the specific practice you are doing.
Sitting for hours on end focusing on your breathing (as retreats do) is depriving your brain of stimuli.
When this is carried out for extended periods, it can lead to sensory deprivation and even atrophy of the brain.
This is why many people who practice for long periods have complained of an inability to perform cognitive functions, like arithmetic and remembering names.
9: For gamers and movie buffs
If you want to practise safely, make sure you do not look at a screen immediately afterwards.
I made the mistake of meditating before playing video games. I did this years ago. And I had an event. I say “Event”. It was similar to a seizure. However, after being tested at the Hamilton General Hospital, I was informed that this “event’ was not a seizure. The doctors were unable to make a formal diagnosis.
10: Does it hinder imagination and creativity?
Some people believe that meditative exercises hinder imagination and creativity. However, there is little evidence to support this.
The argument is that because mindfulness is about seeing reality as it is, it prevents you from seeing reality otherwise, and this, they say, results in a lack of imagination and creativity.
However, this depends on the type of techniques you do. If you only do focused-attention methods, you will not improve your creativity. If you do open meditations (where your mind is open to the entirety of your surroundings), you will boost both your creativity and your imagination.
11: It Brings Up Painful Memories
When you meditate, your mind relaxes more than usual. Many people who are new to the practice have never experienced such a deep level of inner stillness. Because of this calmness, you become more aware of your mind and your thoughts. Some of those thoughts are unpleasant.
For instance, you may notice painful memories. And this might make you feel upset. However, although this can seem like a negative, it is an opportunity to change the way you think and feel.
For the same reason, many people say meditation makes them emotional.
Again, however, this exposure to emotions and thoughts is an opportunity to improve those things. It should be treated as an opportunity for personal growth.
How to avoid the negative side effects of meditation
Yes, there are health risks of meditation. There are adverse side effects of meditation. Pros and cons. But you can stop them from ever happening. One of the best solutions is to learn how to meditate safely.
Many people, especially in the West, start meditating without proper instruction. They see it as a quick fix, like popping a pill.
This is a part of our society. We expect quick results. But meditative practices do not come from the West. They come from the East.
We must understand meditation in accordance with its own culture. It is not a quick solution and was never intended to be one. It requires dedication. Trying to force yourself into a meditative state when you begin practising is only going to lead to problems.
Proper instruction reduces the potential side effects of meditation.
Dr Lorin Roche states that the problem many people face is that they misinterpret Buddhist and Hindu teachings.
He states that many techniques involve detachments and were created for monks and nuns.
Throughout his years as a teacher, he has interviewed many people who were formerly depressed and who came to practice for a solution. Sadly, he states, “internalising teachings that detach you from the world is one way meditation can cause depression.”
The Dalai Lama himself has also warned against too casual an approach to practice.
You have probably never heard that warning before. Nor had I when I started meditating. This isn’t surprising. It’s part of our culture.
Hop on the average website, and you’ll read that X technique can make you happy and healthy. You’re less likely to read about the side effects of meditation.
The simple fact of the matter is that this is an uneducated approach.
We need to look at both the pros and cons of meditating.
The media oversimplifies the methods, and this has led to severe health problems for many people who leap into it and find that suddenly they are experiencing some sort of medical condition.
The opposite of the casual approach is the intense approach, which has dire consequences. This is when people meditate too much or go too deep.
Many people begin practising and sign themselves up for a retreat. Retreats involve practising for entire days, for up to fourteen hours. The aim is to create equanimity and enlightenment.
Such retreats are suitable for advanced practitioners only. For the uninitiated, they are potential death traps. The sheer number of hours these retreats practise for is simply too much meditation for the average person. The result can range from seizures to psychosis and even death.
Methods must be learnt properly. Only then can they be performed safely. Only then can we avoid the negative side effects of meditation.
By understanding the adverse side effects of meditation, you’ll take control of your practice, and you will learn to use techniques for good rather than suffering from one of the negative side effects of meditation.
So, if you want to know how to meditate safely: Go slow, limit your time, and stop if anything feels wrong.
Are you meditating for too long?
If there are negative side effects of meditation, you might wonder: How much is too much?
There is limited research into how long you should meditate for. Most studies show that twenty minutes of daily practice is enough to get the benefits. But we do not know how much is too much.
This is a personal thing.
I have meditated for entire days before and not had any adverse side effects. However, that might not be the same for everybody.
To practice safely, I recommend you do not meditate too much in the beginning. Twenty minutes per day is adequate for the benefits and will minimise the risks involved. Always observe how you are feeling. If you think you are meditating too much reduce it and find what is right for you.
One of the most interesting stories regarding the negative side effects of meditation comes from former Buddhist Monk Christopher Titmuss, who conducts retreats once a year.
He has stated that some of his clients have experienced trauma and required medical support and even the administering of potent drugs. Some have even been hospitalised. Other clients, he states, have experienced “Alienation from reality and short-lived terrors.”
A similar story comes from Zen meditation teacher Geoffrey Dawson, who has met more than twenty people who have experienced states of mental distress, many of whom simply meditated for too long.
Dawson states that these people had “Panic attacks, depressive episodes and manic episodes.”
Dawson suggests that a more sensible approach is needed. “If a gradual approach is adopted, it will help prevent mental disorders.”
Weighing up the pros and cons of meditating
To reiterate, my intention here is not to deter you from meditating. I am deeply passionate about the practice. I believe it is incredibly beneficial. Scientific research makes it beyond obvious that there are more pros than cons of meditation.
But the health risks are nevertheless real. And it is essential to learn how to meditate safely and limit our practice.
Meditative practices are powerful and have the potential to do tremendous good. Still, there are some potential dangers, and they should be acknowledged.
The biggest problem is the way people learn to meditate. Jumping in headfirst without guidance could lead to significant health problems. And of course apps and the media have misguided us.
The media is feeding a meditation craze, and millions of people are starting to practice. You’ll hear “X technique can cure XY and Z” repeatedly. But you’re less likely to hear about the harmful effects. This is a direct result of our culture, our lack of understanding, and our lack of respect.
Meditation is my biggest passion in life. But I also respect my readers’ health. Hence why I share safety tips in my newsletter.
TheDailyMeditation.com is a website all about health, and prevention is perhaps the most critical part of health.
While we here at TheDailyMeditation most definitely do advocate meditation, it is worth being aware of the potential health risks. Your safety is our priority.
My aim with this article is to shed some light on the negative effects of meditation for safety reasons.
Please share this article on social media. This way, we can prevent people from experience the dangerous side-effects of meditation.
3: Meditation May Predispose to Epilepsy https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15617849
4: Dark Side of Meditation http://healthland.time.com/2013/09/17/aaron-alexis-and-the-dark-side-of-meditation/
5: Effects of meditation https://www.researchgate.net/publication/288468969_Effects_of_meditation_on_brain_electrical_activity
6: Mental Health And Intense Meditation Retreats https://zensydney.com/Mental-Health-and-Intensive-Meditation-Retreats
7: Study documents range of challenging meditation experiences https://www.brown.edu/news/2017-05-24/experiences
8: Meditation may cause negative side effects https://www.today.com/health/meditation-may-cause-negative-effects-some-study-finds-t111957