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Mindfulness is often touted as one of the best things you can do for your health. But it may not be right for everyone.

February 12, 2016

Meditation is often touted as one of the best things you can do for your health. But it may not be right for everyone. A recent article in The Guardian reported that some people actually have an adverse reaction from practicing mindfulness techniques. The writer, Dawn Foster, describes her own troubling experience, during a group meditation, like this:

No matter how fast, slow, deep, or shallow my breaths are, it feels as though my lungs are sealed. My instincts tell me to run, but I can’t move my arms or legs. I feel a rising panic and worry that I might pass out, my mind racing. Then we’re told to open our eyes and the feeling dissipates. I look around. No one else appears to have felt they were facing imminent death. What just happened?

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For days after, Foster was on edge, with a constant headache, she says. After a little digging she discovered that her experience wasn't unique.

In her piece for The Guardian, she references a small-scale 1992 study conducted by a professor at the University of California, Irvine, in which 63% of participants who meditated experienced at least one negative side effect, while 7% reported "profoundly adverse" effects like panic, depression, and anxiety.

Oxford psychologists Miguel Farias, PhD, and Catherine Wilkhom discuss this so-called dark side of meditation in their recent book, The Buddha Pill ($15, amazon.com). "Since the book's been published, we've had a number of emails from people wanting to tell us about adverse effects they have experienced," Wilkhom told Foster .

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The Guardian article also describes the experiences of three other women who had traumatic reactions similar to Foster's. Thirty-seven-year-old Claire went on a three-day meditation retreat in an attempt to unwind from her job, only to suffer a "depressive breakdown with psychotic elements." For Louise, a woman in her 50s, a retreat triggered psychotic depression. And 34-year-old Rachel says a series of guided meditations lead her to develop severe anxiety and panic attacks.

Why does this happen? Kate Williams, PhD, a researcher at the University of Manchester, explained to Foster that the self-exploration that meditation requires has the potential to bring up negative emotions. And in extreme cases, it can "induc[e] paranoia, delusions, confusion, mania, or depression," she said.

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Before you cancel your retreat, it's important to note that most people have very positive experiences with meditation. And there's a long, compelling list of studies that link the ancient practice to a slew of health benefits. It's been shown to help reduce mild depression, and anxiety. Other studies have found that meditation helps people sleep betterquit smoking, maintain a healthy brain, ease irritable bowel syndromecope with hot flashes, concentrate better—and the list goes on.

It may even alleviate pain. In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found that meditation lessened the pain intensity participants felt by 27% and their emotional pain by 44%. (For comparison, previous research has suggested that opioid morphine reduces pain by 22%.)

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But if it turns out mindfulness isn't your thing, you've got options, of course. There are plenty of other ways to stay calm and grounded, as Foster has found, like "reading, carving out more time to spend with friends, and simply knowing when to take a break from the frenetic pace of life."

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