A Darker Side to Mindfulness?

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

Over the past few years the popularity of mindfulness has expanded hugely. It has been integrated into some psychological therapies and has been adopted by big and small companies alike with the promise of an altogether happier and more fulfilled workforce. As more and more people sign up to the promises mindfulness seems to offer an unwelcome and unexpected side effect may be emerging.

I've always been aware of a level of scepticism in some quarters over the true worth of mindfulness. Even so I've always felt that while many people derive benefit from it, it simply doesn't suit others. Perhaps as its popularity grows a further strand is emerging more clearly which suggests some people experience adverse effects.

Dawn Foster, writing in The Guardian, outlined her personal experiences and additional findings. She recalls a 'resurgent wave of panic and tightness in the chest' following meditation. Foster gives examples of others who claim to have experienced similar symptoms even to a point where one says it was the catalyst for her depressive breakdown. Her doctors, she says, have advised her to avoid all forms of relaxation and so her one-to-one therapy is 'completely grounded'.

It's difficult to assess the scale of the problem. Foster says that internet forums 'abound with people seekig advice after experiencing panic attack, hearing voices of finding that meditation has deepened their depression.'

There is some concern over the lack of research into mindfulness and it remains the case that pretty much anyone with an inclination can set themselves up as an expert. Training seems to be highly varied with some understanding the mechanics and principles but not with understanding or coping with adverse effects. There is also concern over the motives some businesses may have for adopting mindfulness so readily. Rather than remove the causes of stress a question emerges over whether businesses see mindfulness has a cheap and cheerful plugin to help people deal with it. In so doing they can promote their sensitivity to mental health issues by showing how in tune they are to current practices.

Cynicism aside we have to take seriously the potential negative effects of mindfulness and try to understand the mechanisms involved. Simply clearing our minds and accepting the thoughts and sensations that arise seems harmless enough but there are exceptions. Anyone with a traumatic past may find their experiences begin to resurface. Other mental health issues as yet fully understood may also be triggered in the vulnerable.

Foster's final comments may be of interest to those who, for whatever reason, feel wary of mindfulness. Simply making more time with friends, reading, and learning when to take a break are all alternative and 'more grounded' relaxation methods, she says.

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