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Meditation can have a dark side © Getty Images

Meditation can induce feelings of fear

Published: 17th May, 2019 at 00:00
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Can meditation have a dark side? More than one quarter of people who meditate have had a bad experience during their practice.

These days meditation is practised by everyone from Buddhist monks to LA celebrities, with advocates raving about the practice’s many positive effects such as calming a noisy mind and evoking feelings of peace, well-being and even bliss.


But now, a study carried out at UCL has revealed that there could be a dark side to meditating. In an international online survey of more than 1200 regular meditators the researchers found that more than a quarter have had a 'particularly unpleasant' psychological experience related to the practice, including feelings of fear and distorted emotions.

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Amongst practitioners of so-called ‘deconstructive’ types of meditation that are designed to develop insight into the working of our minds such as the Koan practice used in Zen Buddhism, the figure rose to almost 3 in ten. Men were also slightly more likely to have negative experiences, as were the non-religious, they found.

“These findings point to the importance of widening the public and scientific understanding of meditation beyond that of a health-promoting technique,” said lead researcher Marco Schlosser from UCL’s Division of Psychiatry. “Very little is known about why, when, and how such meditation-related difficulties can occur: more research is now needed to understand the nature of these experiences. When are unpleasant experiences important elements of meditative development, and when are they merely negative effects to be avoided?”

However, the researchers point out that the study had several limitations. Firstly, it only asked about the prevalence of particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences, not about their type, severity or impact. Secondly, it didn’t take into account or assess any potential pre-existing mental health issues in the participants which could be linked to the negative experiences while meditating.

“Most research on meditation has focussed on its benefits, however, the range of meditative experiences studied by scientists needs to be expanded. It is important at this point not to draw premature conclusions about the potential negative effects of meditation,” Schlosser said. “Longitudinal studies will help to learn when, for whom, and under what circumstances these unpleasant experiences arise, and whether they can have long-term effects. This future research could inform clinical guidelines, mindfulness manuals, and meditation teacher training.”

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Science Focus Podcast.


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