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Why Meditation Might be Bad for You
February 18, 2003
Maia Szalavitz
Before you extinguish your ego, consider the scientific evidence on the risks of meditation

If your only source of information is the mainstream American media, you may very well think that meditation is a time-tested, scientifically proven stress-reducer and anxiety-buster.

This week, Newsweek regurgitates that line, with a story sub-titled,  "Science shows that meditation, massage, yoga-even laughter-can change bad habits in the brain." This follows hard on  pro-meditation articles in The New York Timesand The Washington Post citing a brain-imaging study of stressed workers, which found that they shifted their thinking patterns from the negative-focused right prefrontal brain areas to the happier left side through meditation.

But in a rare departure from this trend, John Horgan, in a Slate essay explaining why he abandoned Buddhismmentions that meditation has not been definitively shown to be helpful and can even have harmful effects.

While positive studies have been adding up, few have proper control groups and other measures to avoid biasing the research in favor of the expected results, and most are conducted by unabashed advocates of meditation. In a review published Psychosomatic Medicine in 2002 (Bishop SR, What do we really know about mindfulness-based stress reduction? Psychosom Med 2002 Jan-Feb 64:71-83), the author writes:

"There has been a paucity of research and what has been published has been rife with methodological problems. At present, we know very little about the effectiveness of this approach. However, there is some evidence that suggests that it may hold some promise."

Even more alarming is that there has long been evidence that meditation can have an unambiguously negative effect on some of those who take it up - something that rarely, if ever, gets mentioned in popular press articles on the subject. In one study (Shapiro, DH, Adverse effects of meditation: a preliminary investigation of long-term meditators. Int J Psychosom 1992 39:62-7), two thirds of the subjects experienced some kind of adverse effect, ranging from increased anxiety to depression and a sense of disconnection from reality. Seven percent reported profoundly disturbing and lasting side effects.

Furthermore, many experts who have worked with former cult members have long described numerous meditation-related problems, including a symptom called "floating" in which people become unable to concentrate and feel a loss of their sense of themselves.

Ironically, amid all the positive media vibes, The Washington Post ran an article on people who suffer from depersonalization, which is reported by many as an unpleasant meditation-related side effect. Extreme depersonalization can occur after severe stress, such as child abuse or other trauma-but it is also common in meditators, since some deliberately seek disconnection from reality (which is often viewed as "illusion") and a reduced ego.

Clearly, more research is needed to determine whether meditation has unique benefits - and when and for whom it may be harmful. The media does its audience no favors by claiming that meditation is backed by science as a stress cure when the data isn't in yet. Just because a technique seems harmless because it relies on behavioral changes, not drugs, doesn't mean that it is. Just like drug companies, promoters of meditation have agendas-and their "products" are not all magic bullets.

related links
Here is the full text of a review that looks at both negative and positive effects of meditation (but again finds the research largely flawed and inadequate generally) is available fulltext here.

 


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