How to Reap the Benefits of Meditation

A new study found that not all those who meditate enjoy it. Here’s how to get the most out of this mindfulness technique, plus five free apps that make it easy.

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There’s little doubt that meditation has tons of benefits for our health. Science has shown that the practice can help reduce stress, depression, anxiety, and other symptoms for people living with chronic illness.

But surprisingly, more than 25% of people in a new study said they had a “particularly unpleasant” psychological experience related to meditation, including feeling afraid or having other distorted emotions. So what’s going on here?

Turns out, the research, published in PLOS ONE, actually found that these uncomfortable experiences mainly arose in people who have higher levels of repetitive negative thinking and in those who had attended meditation retreats focused on types of meditation that use self-inquiry to help you undo negative thought patterns. Some of these practices include Vipassana (insight) and Koan practice (used in Zen Buddhism).

And despite some misleading headlines that make this problem seem widespread, it’s important to keep in mind that this study was fairly small (surveying 1,232 people) and had some key limitations—which the authors openly acknowledge. For one, it surveyed people who had at least two months of meditation experience with just one question: "Have you ever had any particularly unpleasant experiences (e.g. anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, altered sense of self or the world), which you think may have been caused by your meditation practice?" And despite the survey results, researchers said that they don’t really know how common these negative experiences actually are.

"Very little is known about why, when, and how such meditation-related difficulties can occur: More research is now needed to understand the nature of these experiences,” said lead study author Marco Schlosser, a research assistant in the division of psychiatry at the University College London, in a press release.

Additionally, the study authors noted, they didn’t collect data about whether the participants had preexisting mental health problems that could have impacted their meditation experiences—and the data also didn’t allow them to clearly infer whether meditation was the cause of these unpleasant experiences or whether it was the result of some other unknown factor.

"Most research on meditation has focused on its benefits, however, and the range of meditative experiences studied by scientists needs to be expanded,” Schlosser said. “It is important at this point not to draw premature conclusions about the potential negative effects of meditation.”

In short, this data hardly negates the large amounts of research backing the wide range of benefits of meditation. And if it’s something you’ve been thinking of trying, it’s still worth exploring.

Top Meditation Apps for Beginners

Ready to get started? Check out one of these top free apps:

  1. Calm (iOS; Android) The app offers more than 100 guided meditations along with soothing narrated stories  designed specifically to help you fall asleep.

  2. Headspace: Meditation & Sleep (iOS; Android) Headspace also offers more than 100 guided meditations in a variety of formats—some even as short as a couple minutes. Its introductory series will help you learn the basics, plus it organizes guided meditations by topic, including stress, focus, sleep, and anxiety.

  3. Breethe (iOS: Android) This app tracks your progress as you meditate and allows you to save your favorite meditation sessions for later use. It offers mediation series as well as single sessions for whatever your mood may be.

  1. Aura: Calm Anxiety & Sleep (iOS; Android) As you use the Aura app, it will learn more about you and recommend guided meditations based on your preferences. It provides everything from mindfulness practices to life-coaching sessions and also includes a gratitude journal.

  2. Music Zen - Relaxing Sounds (iOS) Along with guided meditations, this app offers relaxing games and peaceful visuals to help you destress and reduce anxiety (including a very satisfying bubble wrap-popping game).

Or, if you have an Alexa-enabled device, just ask Alexa. Simply say, “Alexa, help me meditate,” and she’ll offer you a handy list of options without you having to lift a finger. Just find a comfy place to sit and get started.

See more helpful articles:

How Meditation Can Help You Cope with Chronic Illness