Meditation has known benefits, both research-backed and anecdotal. But few things in this life work for everybody, and there’s reason to believe that meditation may make some people’s mental health worse. If that’s you, I hereby give you permission to quit. Guilt-free.
What reminded me to say this was a New Scientist article about a study (not yet available online) that found some people — 8 per cent, they say — experience negative effects from meditation, such as increased anxiety. Meanwhile, a study from last year found that 25 per cent of people who meditate regularly have sometimes felt “unpleasant meditation-related experiences.”
It’s certainly possible for something that’s worthwhile to occasionally be unpleasant; I exercise often and credit it with improvements to my mental and physical health, but I would definitely answer yes if you asked me whether I’ve had unpleasant exercise-related experiences. One bad day doesn’t make the whole pursuit worthless.
But there’s an odd rigidity to a lot of meditation practices. I remember the entire introductory series on Headspace being a gentle voice telling me exactly what to do and reassuring me that if I followed the instructions, I’ll feel better in the end. Some apps reward streaks or force you to do the meditations in a certain way or a certain order.
On the flip side, if you go free-form and just breathe mindfully while thinking or listening to music, that could lead some of us to overthink things. Psychologist Katie Sparks told New Scientist that guided meditations may be “safer,” helping to keep your thoughts in a good place. Or, as my editor put it when sharing the link with me, “Now more than ever maybe [we] don’t want to live in the moment?”
One thing is clear: while meditation has helped a lot of people, it’s probably wrong to think of it either as a miracle cure or as necessary maintenance for the brain. The latter is a viewpoint we’ve covered in the past, but I think that deserves a caveat — meditation as maintenance is a helpful metaphor for many of us, but it’s not a universal solution.
So if you’ve tried meditation in an attempt to stave off anxiety or depression, and you find that it’s making things worse, not better — quit. Or try a different type. Swap your free-form meditations for guided ones, or vice versa. In the end, if the thing you’re doing to relax doesn’t relax you, maybe it’s time to trust your gut and move on.