Over the past few years, the wellness world has been focused on meditation and mindfulness and how it can help improve your life. Of course, meditation has also been around for millennia, but its apparent ease of access and minimal investment has definitely helped create its recent uptick in popularity.
And while there are many great reasons to meditate (increased concentration, lower stress levels, better sleep, to name a few), there's the small problem of it not going exactly as planned for many who practice.
In a new study published in PLOS One, "The Varieties of Contemplative Experience," researchers found that meditation didn't only deliver positive reactions — it could also produce negative or "challenging" ones, such as fear, involuntary body movements and panic.
Meditation didn't only deliver positive reactions — it could also produce negative or "challenging" ones.
Noting that these types of results are often under-reported in literature, the study's authors interviewed almost 100 people who practiced meditation, as well as teachers from three main traditions (Theravāda, Zen and Tibetan). They discovered that meditation affects seven main aspects: cognitive, perceptual, affective (i.e. emotions and moods), somatic (relating to the body), conative (i.e. motivation or will), sense of self and social.
The subjects reported a variety of reactions, both positive and negative, and they lasted anywhere from as soon as the person started practicing to 25 years into their practice.
While the introspective nature of meditation is meant to bring up difficult thoughts (as with people who re-experienced traumatic memories) and is certainly meant to be a challenge, many believe they'll automatically reap the benefits right away. But the practice isn't as simple as sitting down, closing your eyes and letting the good vibes flow — your mental state, your teacher and even your physical location can make a difference.
“This is a good example of how a contextual factor can affect associated distress and functioning,” Jared Lindahl, one of the study's co-authors, said in a press release. “An experience that is positive and desirable in one situation may become a burden in another.”
Similarly, people have been questioning the use of apps and other technology, which coerce you to meditate for a certain amount of time or at a specific point in the day, to aid in mediation, which might also create stress with regards to a habit that's meant to be calming.
"Content-heavy meditation apps, like ones that guide you or use particular sounds or images, insinuate themselves into your meditation. They don’t teach a practice you can do without them." —Jon Mitchell
"Analytics motivate us, like fitness trackers, but then they create the feeling of wasted effort if we can’t get our points," wrote Jon Mitchell, lifelong meditator and author of In Real Life: Searching for Connection in High-Tech Times, on his blog. "More content-heavy meditation apps, like ones that guide you or use particular sounds or images, insinuate themselves into your meditation. They don’t teach a practice you can do without them."
There's no question meditation can help people, but it seems that it doesn't necessarily help everyone. And with the flood of good news stories on the practice, that can make people feel like there's something wrong with them, when that is not in any way the case.
“During the interviews, some people learned for the first time that they are not completely alone in having had this experience,” Lindahl said. “The social awareness we think this project can raise could be a key way of addressing some of the problems.”