Can Meditation Trigger Panic Attacks? The Weird Effect Making News
Mindfulness is often touted as one of the best things you can do for your health. But it may not be right for everyone.
Meditation is often touted as one of the best things you can do for your health. ButÂ it may not be right for everyone. AÂ recent article in The GuardianÂ reported that someÂ people actually haveÂ anÂ adverse reactionÂ from practicingÂ 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 canâ€™t move my arms or legs.Â I feel a rising panic and worry that I might pass out, my mind racing. Then weâ€™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?
For days after, Foster was on edge, with a constant headache, she says. After aÂ little digging she discoveredÂ thatÂ herÂ experience wasn't unique.
In her piece for The Guardian, sheÂ 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 likeÂ panic, depression, and anxiety.
Oxford psychologists Miguel Farias, PhD, and Catherine Wilkhom discuss this so-calledÂ dark side of meditation in their recent book,Â 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," WilkhomÂ told Foster .
The GuardianÂ 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 unwindÂ from her job, only to suffer aÂ "depressive breakdown with psychotic elements." For Louise, a woman in her 50s, a retreat triggered psychotic depression.Â And 34-year-old Rachel says a series of guided meditationsÂ lead her to developÂ severe anxiety andÂ panic attacks.
Why does this happen? Kate Williams, PhD, a researcher at the University of Manchester, explained to Foster thatÂ theÂ self-explorationÂ that meditation requiresÂ has the potential to bring upÂ negative emotions. And in extreme cases, itÂ can "induc[e] paranoia, delusions, confusion, mania, or depression," she said.
Before you cancel your retreat, it's important to note that mostÂ people have very positive experiences with meditation. And there's a long, compelling list of studies thatÂ link the ancient practice to a slew ofÂ health benefits. It's beenÂ shownÂ toÂ help reduce mildÂ depression, and anxiety. Other studies have found that meditation helps peopleÂ sleep better,Â quit smoking, maintain a healthy brain, easeÂ irritable bowel syndrome,Â cope with hot flashes,Â concentrate betterâ€”and the list goes on.
ItÂ may evenÂ alleviateÂ pain. In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found that meditation lessened the painÂ intensity participants felt by 27% and their emotional pain by 44%. (For comparison, previous research has suggested that opioid morphine reduces pain by 22%.)
But ifÂ 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."