RISKS AND ADVERSE REACTIONS TO MEDITATION
MA is committed to raising the awareness of our members regarding the potential risks of meditation practices alongside the well-researched benefits of those practices. We are also committed to encouraging our members to become more skillful in preventing and/or managing any adverse reactions to meditation.
Can meditation have negative side effects?
While the benefits of meditation practices have been researched extensively, it is unfortunate that little research has been directed towards the potential risks.
It is ironic that the meditative practices that research has shown can greatly improve certain mental health issues can, in rare cases, trigger mental health problems. Meditation can reduce anxiety, stress and depression and help people cope with illness and pain. Studies have also shown that meditation increases positive moods and has measurable positive effects on the brain. Yet, in a relatively small number of cases, meditation can activate reactions of panic, depression and anxiety. In some more extreme cases, mania and psychotic symptoms have been reported. These cases are rare but require further investigation and care. In acknowledgment of this concern, the Meditation Association of Australia (MA) has created a sub-committee to investigate and raise awareness of these risks.
Meditative practices can bring into awareness experiences that are relaxing and comfortable, and experiences which are uncomfortable. Experiences such as restlessness, agitation, sadness and frustration are common but are usually transitory. Seeing these experiences arise and pass away is part of the meditation process.
In people who have come to meditation for relief from stress, pain or psychological disorders, uncomfortable experiences are more likely to arise. The potential for these uncomfortable experiences should be explained by the meditation teacher and skilfully managed when they arise. There should be no pressure or coercion from the teacher; instead the participant should be encouraged to monitor their thoughts and feelings and to stop the practice and request support if needed.
In exploring the psychological benefits and risks of meditation, there are three primary considerations: the intensity of the practice, the vulnerability of the participant, and the skill and experience of the meditation teacher.
Most reports of adverse effects arising from meditation practice come from participants attending intensive meditation retreats. These intensive retreats may be conducted in silence, with the participants sitting in meditation for extended periods of time – many hours each day for a week or more. The teachers may be perceived as being rigid and unavailable to the participants. Obviously, more vulnerable participants with pre-existing mental health difficulties may experience distress in such conditions. Careful assessment, screening and pre-class interviews are necessary. Those with mental health difficulties should consult a mental health professional before attending. They should also disclose their mental health situation to their prospective teacher.
Low and moderate intensity meditation programs, which are in the vast majority, commonly recommend 20 – 40 minutes of meditation per day. While uncomfortable experiences may still arise for some participants, they should be shown how to work skilfully with such experiences, and be given appropriate support. Learning to manage such experiences can be freeing and empowering for the participant. However, some teachers may have limited training and experience in supporting participants through either the normal and expected uncomfortable experiences that arise or the more atypical unexpected side effects of practice.
It is for this reason that the Meditation Association of Australia has defined three categories of meditation teaching: personal development, therapeutic and spiritual. In order to be recognized as a teacher of therapeutic meditation, we require additional training and experience above and beyond meditation teacher training. Teachers of therapeutic meditation are those who augment a degree-level qualification in a health-related field with meditation teaching for therapeutic purposes, in which the primary intention is to treat illness, to manage symptoms or to promote physical, emotional and psychological health and wellbeing.
To learn more about the role and limits of a meditation teacher qualification please visit our Scope of Practice page.
If you are struggling with your meditation practice and/or experiencing uncomfortable side effects, don’t hesitate to mention this to your teacher. They will be able to offer you a recommendation to a trusted, qualified local practitioner to support your needs.
National help lines and websites
Offers a support service for treatment and prevention of anxiety and depression. Phone 1300 224 636
Information on symptoms, treatment and prevention of depression and bipolar disorder.
1800 242 636
Short-term counselling and emotional and psychological support services for carers and their families in each state and territory.
1800 650 890
Free online and telephone service that supports young people aged between 12 and 25 and their families going through a tough time.
1800 55 1800
A free, private and confidential, telephone and online counselling service specifically for young people aged between 5 and 25.
1300 78 99 78
A telephone and online support, information and referral service, helping men to deal with relationship problems in a practical and effective way.
An innovative website dedicated to providing access to trusted, relevant mental health care services, online programs and resources.
1800 61 44 34
An online and telephone clinic providing free assessment and treatment services for Australian adults with anxiety or depression.
Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services and Aboriginal Medical Services in each state and territory.
1800 184 527
3pm – 12am
QLife is Australia’s first nationally-oriented counselling and referral service for LGBTI people. The project provides nation-wide, early intervention, peer supported telephone and web based services to diverse people of all ages experiencing poor mental health, psychological distress, social isolation, discrimination, experiences
1300 364 277
A provider of relationship support services for individuals, families and communities.
1800 18 7263
Information about mental illness, treatments, where to go for support and help for carers.
Information, resources, counselling and group support to those bereaved by suicide.
Support groups and online forums
Talking about what’s going on with others who understand – or may be going through something similar – can really make a difference. Black Dog Institute has a list of support groups in every state and territory that can help you connect with groups of people who meet regularly to discuss their experiences, their problems and their strategies for coping.
The beyondblue online forums are also a great way to connect with people online, in a safe and anonymous environment, to discuss anxiety, depression, suicide and a range of life issues. Anyone in Australia can participate in discussions, connect with others and share their experiences.