While there’s plenty of evidence for the positive effects of meditation, it’s not completely risk-free. Its contemplation and focused awareness can bring uncomfortable thoughts and feelings to the surface.
A 2017 survey by psychologists in Spain and Brazil found that around 25 per cent of regular meditators have ‘unwanted experiences’, including panic attacks, emotional feelings and derealisation (losing contact with reality). So you might not be doing anything ‘wrong’. In fact, in many meditative traditions, confronting the challenges – and learning how to accept and work with them – is seen as an important part of the exercise.
However, some people are more vulnerable than others. For example, people with pre-existing severe anxiety can experience ‘relaxation-induced anxiety’ when they meditate. This might be because they fear a shift back to their baseline anxiety level after being in a more relaxed state. If you’re struggling with this or any other mental health issue, you should seek professional support before experimenting with meditation any further.
Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.