Did you know meditation can cause headaches, seizures, anxiety , mental illness, panic attacks, weight loss, insomnia, psychosis and hallucinations? This important article warns of the potential health risks of meditation.
Meditation has been touted online for many years now.
Across the internet you’ll find articles on how meditation can cure depression, improve your health, create happiness and much more.
Meditation is without doubt powerful. I’ve previously researched and written about the 100 health benefits of meditation.
Meditation is huge.
However: meditation is not completely safe. There are health risks of meditation too. And not just that meditation makes you cry.
In this article I wanted to separate myth from fact.
There are many myths and lies about meditation. I’ve made sure to avoid these. All the points in this article are backed by scientific research.
Please read this article carefully and ask yourself whether meditation is having any negative affects on your health. Then you will understand why you should learn meditation the right way.
Note: I am aware that as a meditation teacher it might seem strange for me to discuss the negative health impacts of meditation. But 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.
Meditation Can Cause Seizures
Meditation is known to produce mental calmness and changes in autonomic functioning (1), such as blood pressure and heart rate, but it can also have a negative effect and can cause seizures.
Research into epileptics has used neuro-imaging to study the affect of meditation. 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 meditation 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.
Meditation can cause Headaches
Certain meditation techniques are known to cause headaches.
There are several reasons for this.
Firstly, when you meditate there is often a struggle. You are consciously attempting to change your mental state, but your ego does not desire change, it desires to keep things as they are. This can, at times, lead to tension that causes headaches.
Certain meditation techniques—Third Eye meditation, for instance—involve quite forcefully focusing your mind.
For beginners, the practice of focusing the mind can be a challenge. If we are not used to focusing our minds, the strain of doing so can cause discomfort and strain, leading to headaches.
Perhaps the most important factor to understand regarding meditation and headaches is the serious transformation that takes place in your brain.
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 meditations, and always finish a meditation by sitting and relaxing (outside of meditation) for a few minutes. This gives your brain time to adapt.
Meditation can cause Anxiety
One of the harder questions to answer regards meditations affect on people with mental disorders.
While some research shows that meditation can cure depression and meditation can cure anxiety, other research shows that meditation 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 when meditating (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. This is because meditation may cause stressful, painful or upsetting thoughts to arise, and it’s important for an expert to be at hand to help the practitioner escape any negative mental states.
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 meditation can lead to symptoms severe enough to warrant a psychiatric diagnosis (6).
Meditation Can Cause Panic Attacks
Because meditation can lead to intense painful feelings and emotions, it has been known to also cause panic attacks for some people.
If you have a history of panic attacks, we strongly advise you to consult a doctor before practicing meditation.
Zen meditation 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 meditation. (7)
Can meditation cause death?
While it is extremely unlikely that meditation will cause death, it is not completely impossible
. People who have a history of seizures, panic attacks or any psychological disorders must consult a doctor before beginning meditation.
The Real Problem With Meditation
The problem with meditation 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. Meditation is far from a quick solution. It takes dedication. Trying to force yourself into a meditative state when you begin practicing is only going to lead to problems.
Dr. Lorin Roche formerly stated that the key problem with meditation is the fact that people misinterpret Buddhist and Hindu teachings. He states that many meditation techniques involve detachments and were created for monks and nuns, not for you and me. Throughout his years as a meditation teacher he has interviewed may people who were formerly depressed and who came to meditation for a solution. Sadly, he states, “internalising teaching that detach you from the world leads to depression.”
The Dalai Lama himself has also warned against too casual an approach to meditation.
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 meditation website or health website and you’ll bet old that X meditation 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). The media oversimplifies meditation, and this has led to severe health problems for many people who leap into meditation 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 meditating and sign themselves up for a meditation retreat. Meditation retreats involve meditating for the entire day, for up to fourteen hours. The aim is to create equanimity and enlightenment.
Such retreats are suitable for advanced meditators 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.
Meditation must be learnt properly. Only then can it be performed safely.
Can Meditation Cause Mental Atrophy
Another study into the negative effects of meditation was conducted by Arthur Chappell, a former Maharaj devotee (8). He states that mediation “Deprives the mind of stimulus” essentially leading to sensory deprivation.
Here, of course, many people will protest. Many meditation practices actually stimulate the mind. Meditation creates awareness. When we are more aware of our surroundings we find more stimulation, not less.
This is certainly true for a great many meditation techniques, but it depends on the technique.
Sitting for hours on end focusing on your breathing (as meditation 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 meditation for long periods have complained of an inability to perform cognitive functions, like arithmetic and remembering names.
Respecting the Affect Meditation Has On Your Brain
If you want to succeed with meditation, you have to have respect.
Meditation is a powerful practice. It isn’t just a pill you can take before bedtime.
By understanding the effect meditation has on your brain you’ll take control of your meditation practice, and you will actually learn to use meditation for good rather than suffering a potential health disorder.
Many researchers have been studying the effect meditation has on your brain over recent years.
One of those researchers, Buddhist Richard Davidson, states that meditation “changes neural states that can lead to compassion and emotional regulation.” (9. )But at the same time, other scientists have noted significant problems both in the research of meditation and in meditation itself. Some claim that pro-meditation researchers are publishing information before it is complete.
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 experiences distress and panic attacks, and patients suffering from schizophrenia can experience psychosis as a direct result of meditation.
Another 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.
First Hand Account
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 meditation 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 meditation 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 to meditation is needed. “If a gradual approach to meditation is adopted it will help prevent mental disorders.”
Meditation Can Cause Hypersensitivity To Light And Sound
Are you hypersensitive to light and sound? We’ve got some bad news for you.
Brown University researchers recently interviewed 100 meditators and meditation teachers and asked them about the side effects that they had experienced after meditating. 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 meditation or the quality or length of their tuition.
The researchers tell us that they are not trying to put people off of meditation 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 from meditating.” 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 meditation or changing your meditation technique.
Here’s a list of 31 different types of meditation. If one is not working, you could try another.
I suggest moving off of any meditation that involves oneness (such as Dhyana). This type of meditation puts your consciousness in closer contact with the meditation object. In turn, that 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.
Do NOT Meditate before watching TV, playing games, or surfing the internet!
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 tell me what it was.
Meditation is a powerful technique. It has been proven to offer a great many health benefits.
At the same time, however, because meditation is so powerful it can also cause adverse side-effects.
The biggest problem with meditation is the manner in which people are practicing.
Jumping into meditation 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 beginning to meditate. Sadly, while you’ll hear “Meditation 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 for meditation.
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 meditation 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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