Did you know: there are serious health risks of meditation. Side effects of meditation are many. And you seriously need to be clued in on them.
Many people know about the common side effects of meditation, many of which are very minor, such as the fact that some techniques can make you cry a lot). But as science continues to examine the effects of this ancient old practice, we are uncovering some alarming potential dangers of meditating.
Most media outlets have been entirely focused on the 100 benefits of meditation.
However, there is a flip-side, and in this article I would like to reveal some of the scientifically proven dangers of meditating. They include: headaches, seizures, anxiety , mental illness, panic attacks, weight loss, insomnia, psychosis and… hallucinations?
As a meditation teacher I’m alarmed by few people are aware of these potential side effects. Every day beginners endangers themselves by learning incorrect methods of meditating [READ: How To Meditate Properly For Beginners]
Why you’ve never heard about negative side effects of meditation
Across the internet you’ll find articles on all the mental health benefits of meditation.
Yes, there are some methods that can cure depression, improve your health, create happiness and much more.
Yet you’ll find next to nothing about the health risks of meditation. Side effects are, nevertheless, very real. And it is important to be aware of both the pros and cons of meditation.
However, there are more dangerous effect too.
Dangerous side effects of meditation
It probably sounds a bit strange for me to say that there are side effects of meditation, especially given that I am an online meditation instructor.
I love meditation. It’s my biggest passion in life. But I also respect people’s health, which is why I want to fill you in on the dangers of meditation.
TheDailyMeditation.com is a website all about health, and prevention is perhaps the most important 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.
1. One surprising side effect of meditation is anxiety
You have probably heard that some techniques like mindfulness can cure anxiety.
That’s undeniably true. However, there is also some risk of anxiety being caused by meditation, too.
This is one side effect that many people are shocked to hear about. However, research shows that some methods may in fact have an adverse affect on 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 showed that feelings of fear and anxiety are common(5).
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 to arise.
Dr. Willoughby Britton, a neuroscientist at Brown University, is studying the negative effects of mindfulness.
Dr. Britton has stated that during a meditation retreat she felt “like I was having a nervous breakdown.” She later learned that intense practices can lead to symptoms severe enough to warrant a psychiatric diagnosis (6).
Neurobiologist Dr. Nancy Hayes, states that “Patients with emotional disorders may have adverse reactions to meditation.”
Neuroscientist Dr. Solomon Snyder adds that meditation raises the level of serotonin in the brain and therefore can cause relaxation-induced anxiety. He has noted that many people with emotional disorders experience distress and panic attacks, and patients suffering from schizophrenia can experience psychosis as a direct result of meditation.
Meditation is known to produce mental calmness and changes in autonomic functioning (1).It can have be highly beneficial for blood pressure and heart rate, but one negative side effect of meditation is that it can cause seizures.
Research into epileptics has used neuro-imaging to study the effect of practice. These studies have shown that entering a meditative state alters neuro-chemistry and neuro-physiology of the brain that can lead to epileptogenesis (2).
Epilepsy is caused by hypersynchrony of EEG activity and the rise in brain glutamate and serotonin (3).
Any one of these factors can change susceptibility to epilepsy.
Because meditation is known to lead to these changes, there is belief in the scientific world that some methods of practice could cause seizures. Research into this is still taking place.
Neuroscientist Dr. Michael Persinger at Leurentian University of Canada conducted research into the relationship between seizures and meditation. In 1993 he studied 1,018 meditators. The results of his research shows that meditation can led 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 conducted research into 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.
2. A milder side effect of meditation is that it can cause headaches
Meditation can help to stop pain. However, it can also 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 mental resistance and the desire to keep things unchanged. This conflict causes mental and physical tension that can cause headaches.
Certain techniques—Third Eye , for instance—involve quite forcefully focusing your mind. So it is little surprise that headaches are a negative side effect of these practices.
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, leading to headaches.
Perhaps the most important factor to understand regarding meditation and headaches is the serious transformation that takes place in your brain.
Meditation increases electrical activity in the brain (4). While this can have some benefits (such as increasing intelligence) it can cause pain and discomfort for beginners.
It can be quite jarring to go from a regular state to a meditative state and then back again. The sudden change in state is another cause of strain.
To avoid this, practice gentle techniques, and always finish by sitting and relaxing for a few minutes. This gives your brain time to adapt.
4. Another side effect of meditation is panic attacks
Here is another pro and con of meditation: It can both cause and cure panic attacked [READ: Meditation For Panic Attacks]
Techniques that seek to address emotional conflicts in the mind can understandably produce emotional reactions, and these can lead to 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 practicing.
Zen teacher Geoffrey Dawson has stated that he has met more than twenty people who experienced “Panic attacks, depressive episodes and manic episodes” as a result of practice. (7)
5. The most shocking danger of meditation is… potential death?!
There is some evidence to show that a seriously negative side effect of meditation is, well, death.
While it is extremely unlikely that meditation will cause death, it is not completely impossible.
It is known that seizures can cause death. And meditation can cause seizures… so there is certainly the possibility of practicing 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 meditation.
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 have been experiencing hypersensitivity to light and sound, as well as insomnia, occasional involuntary movements, and feelings of fear, anxiety and panic. (11)
There are limits to the study though. It does not seem to have considered where the interviewee learned to practice or the quality or length of their tuition.
The researchers tell us that they are not trying to put people off of practicing but that it is important to know about these symptoms as being sensitive to light and sound can cause discomfort and unease. And unlike light sensitivity disorder, which is a serious 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 meditation. There is data that many people find tremendous benefits of these practices.” He states that it’s important to have a good idea of the pros and cons of meditating before beginning. (12)
The degree of the hypersensitivity to light and sound, and the extremity of insomnia, ranged between different people. Some people were much less sensitive to sounds and light than others. This this suggests that meditation may be good for some and less good (though still not bad) for others.
If you have hypersensitivity to light and sound, consult a doctor and consider either stopping practice or changing your technique.
I suggest moving off of any meditation that involves oneness (such as Dhyana). This type of technique puts your consciousness in closer contact with the focus-object. In turn, this trains the mind to focus more fully on what you’re looking at. This means that when you see bright lights you may inadvertently focus on them too full, which can cause complications.
7. Movement problem
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. He also states that oneness (the state in which we feel we are one with our surroundings) could be the result of the effects meditation is having on the brain. 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 to falls.
8. Mental atrophy
Another study into the negative side effects of meditation was conducted by Arthur Chappell, a former Maharaj devotee (8). He states that practice “Deprives the mind of stimulus” essentially leading to sensory deprivation.
Here, of course, many people will protest.
Many methods actually stimulate the mind and create awareness. When we are more aware of our surroundings we find more stimulation, not less.
This is certainly true for a great many techniques, but it depends on the specific technique.
Sitting for hours on end focusing on your breathing (as retreats do) is depriving your brain of stimulus.
When this is carried out for long 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
It is highly risky to go to any kind of screen or device immediately after meditating. I personally 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 in fact not a seizure. The doctors actually were unable to make a formal diagnosis.
Here’s how to handle these health risks of meditation
Yes, there are health risks of meditation. There are negative side effects of meditation. Pros and cons. But you can stop them from ever happening. One of the best solutions is to simply learn to practice the right way.
Another solution is this. If the technique you are doing is not helping you, try a different technique.
The problem with practicing is the way in which people in the West are practicing.
The simple fact of the matter is that Westerners are accustomed to the quick fix, to the pill pop.
This is a part of our society. We expect quick results. But meditation doesn’t come from the West. It comes from the East.
Meditation must be understood by its own culture. It is not a quick solution. It was never intended to be one. It requires dedication. Trying to force yourself into a meditative state when you begin practicing is only going to lead to problems.
When you adopt a better attitude, you massively reduce any health risks of meditation.
Dr. Lorin Roche formerly stated 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, not for you and me.
Throughout his years as a teacher he has interviewed may people who were formerly depressed and who came to practice for a solution. Sadly, he states, “internalising teachings that detach you from the world leads to 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 be told that X technique can make you happy and healthy. The simple fact of the matter is that this is an uneducated approach (and often designed only to garner website hits). We need to look at both the pros and cons of meditating, instead.
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.
Many people begin practicing and sign themselves up for a retreat. Retreats involve practicing for the entire day, 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 average person’s brain is unprepared to meditate for such a long period of time and in such intense conditions. The result can range from seizures to psychosis and even to death.
Methods must be learnt properly. Only then can it be performed safely. Only then can we avoid the negative side effects of meditation and stop the health risks of meditation from happening.
By understanding the side effects of meditation you’ll take control of your practice, and you will actually learn to use techniques for good rather than suffering from one of the negative side effects of meditation.
First Hand Accounts On The Side Effects Of Meditation
One of the most interesting stories regarding the negative health effects of meditation comes from former Buddhist Monk and resident of England, Christopher Titmuss, who conducts retreats once a year.
He has stated that some of his clients experience trauma and require medical support and even the administering of strong 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 experiences states of mental distress as a direct result of meditation (most of them after meditating at a retreat, Goenka Vipassana Retreat Center).
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 to is adopted it will help prevent mental disorders.”
Yes, the health risks of meditation are real.
The health risks of meditation are real. But we can avoid all these negative side effect of meditation by being smart.
Meditative practices and techniques are powerful and have the potential to do tremendous good for us, but there are some potential dangers and they should be acknowledged.
The biggest problem is the way people learn to practice. Jumping in head first without guidance and without understanding could lead to significant health problems.
Sadly, this is precisely what millions of people are doing.
The media is feeding a meditation craze and millions of people are starting to practice. Sadly, while you’ll hear “X technique can cure XY and Z” repeatedly online, you’re less likely to hear about the negative effects of meditation. This is a direct result of our culture and our lack of understanding and lack of respect.
My aim with this article is to shed some light on the negative effects of meditation and thereby prevent potential health complications arising from unguided practice.
Please share this article on social media. This way we can prevent anyone from experience a dangerous side-effect of meditation.
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