This informal CPD article Too much of a good thing: when mindfulness can have negative effects was provided by Elissa Makris, Business Psychologist at Thrive Mental Wellbeing, a software company that prevents, screens and manages mental health conditions 24/7.
When I first learned about meditation and practicing mindfulness, I felt like there is a general tendency to think that the most effective and ‘accomplished’ way to practice it is when your attention is focused inwards and you become aware of all thoughts, feelings and sensations and are able to let them go or accept them as they are.
Some days this worked for me but on other days this heightened awareness of my internal states would lead to increased feelings of panic or emotional turbulence right after the meditation. I was convinced it was because I was not a ‘good’ meditator and that it had to do with my lack of dedication to the practice, but I realised I was not alone in feeling this way.
A study by Schlosser and colleagues found that 25.6% of regular meditators reported having an unpleasant experience associated with their meditative practice. This was more common for individuals who practiced insight meditation, during which attention is drawn inwards and the person is trying to observe how the mind creates reality through thoughts, emotions and sensations.
Now why would this be a distressing experience? It has been found that meditation increases activation of the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for planning, inhibition and reasoning as well as the anterior cingulate cortex, which is responsible for empathy, emotion and decision making. Activation of the prefrontal cortex helps us to regulate our emotions however at the same time the heightened activation of the anterior cingulate cortex and limbic system means that emotions are felt more distinctly.
Some regular meditators might become hyper aware of their emotional state leading to feelings of discomfort or panic while on the other hand others start to completely dissociate with their emotions inhibiting them from feeling extreme happiness or sadness at any point in their lives. Meaning that the well known inverted U-shaped curved principle of experiencing particular benefits but only up to a certain point can probably also be applied to mindfulness meditation.
Of course overall mindfulness is still beneficial to us in many ways, whether that is through emotional regulation, making better decisions for ourselves, reducing stress and managing symptoms associated with mental health conditions. However, we still need to gain greater understanding of when mindfulness-based programmes are particularly effective and when they are not, as findings are mixed within this field.
So this then brings us to the point of everything in moderation. I’m sure this is a phrase that we have all heard millions of times before, but it is one that we can apply to all aspects of our lives, whether it is exercise, nutrition or mindfulness. When we start feeling that our mindfulness practices are having unwanted side effects we can give ourselves a break or change our practice from a focus that is inwards to one that is outwards. For example, listening to a story, paying attention to every little detail in our environment as we go on a walk, cooking or eating mindfully. Occupy your mind with tasks that you enjoy or just observe external stimuli without letting your attention wander.
There is no prescribed way of practicing mindfulness, so embrace this diversity and alternate your practice according to what your body and mind tells you.
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