Mindfulness can lead to mental ill-health

Wellbeing practices can trigger ‘adverse events’ such as depression and anxiety, study finds

Mindfulness can lead to mental ill-health

Meditation and mindfulness have been the subject of growing interest in recent years, thanks to rapidly expanding evidence suggesting they’re helpful for many mental and physical health problems. The UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has recommended mindfulness-based cognitive therapy since 2004, and in 2017 NHS England mandated it as a treatment that should be available in all primary care mental health services. 

Mindfulness and meditation have also been offered by some of the world’s biggest companies – such as Google, GlaxoSmithKline and KPMG – to cut workplace stress and boost productivity. In 2004, Transport for London implemented a group-based mindfulness programme to help staff manage mental health issues, understand their stress cycles and develop healthier habits. Nearly all participants reported improvements in their happiness at work, sleep patterns and personal relationships. 

However, a review led by Coventry University has found these wellbeing practices can actually result in unwanted negative effects. The study revealed that 8 per cent of people who tried meditation experienced an unwanted negative effect on their mental health – or meditation adverse events (MAEs). 

The researchers analysed 83 studies, 55 of which included reports of at least one type of MAE. The most common adverse events were anxiety (33 per cent), depression (27 per cent) and cognitive anomalies (25 per cent). 

Dr Miguel Farias, co-author of the report and experimental psychologist at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University, said millions of people used meditation and mindfulness as therapy and wellbeing practices without awareness of potential unwanted side effects. “People have experienced anything from an increase in anxiety up to panic attacks,” Farias explained. “For most people, [meditation] works fine, but it has undoubtedly been over-hyped and it’s not universally benevolent.”