Possible side effects are often in the foreground when medication for physical or mental complaints is taken. However, with treatments like meditation that are not in pill form, the information is less clear.
Popular media and case studies have recently highlighted negative side effects of meditation – increases in depression, anxiety, and even psychosis or mania – but few studies have delved into the subject in large numbers of people.
In a recent article published in the journal Psychological Medicine, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds found that people who participated in the most common and widely used worldly mindfulness program did not experience greater psychological harm than those in control groups who did not participate in the program.
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As meditation becomes part of a growing list of treatment options for stress, depression, and substance abuse, understanding when it is effective and when it can pose risks must also be understood.
“There are two sides to any treatment of any kind – behavior or drugs,” says Matt Hirshberg, a 2019 postdoctoral fellow at the National Academy of Education / Spencer Foundation at the center, who led the study. “What are the benefits and what are the risks of harm? Most of the research on mindfulness meditation has focused on the benefits – how it works, to what extent it works, and so on. This paper should provide empirical estimates of potential risks. “
In the analysis, the researchers examined data from more than 2,150 adults who took a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class at a community health clinic between 2002 and 2016. MBSR is a standard eight-week mindfulness program that is typically face-to-face and offered widely in the healthcare sector.
The team examined the before and after results of a joint assessment of mental symptoms and a measure of bothersome physical symptoms. They also included data from three National Institutes of Health-sponsored studies of MBSR, in which people were randomly assigned to control groups, and compared the harm in those studies to MBSR in the community. This allowed the group to study the results and extent of harm in people who did not take MBSR.
In the absence of a standard way of assessing damage, the researchers looked at various common measures of damage, including worsening average symptoms, the number of people reporting increased symptoms, the number of symptoms over 35% increased, and clinically significant damage or proportion of those who reported a categorical worsening of symptoms (e.g. from normal symptom level to mildly symptomatic).
The scientific team did not find a single case where the harm suffered by people in MBSR (community or research) was greater than the increased negative symptoms experienced by people in the control group who received no treatment.
In addition, in about half of the harm measures examined by the researchers, the damage rates with MBSR were significantly lower than in the group with no treatment. Hirshberg notes that these results “suggest that MBSR is not only no more harmful than no treatment, but actually prevents the development of increased psychological and physical symptoms.”
However, the researchers carefully noted that more research is needed into potential preventive effects, as most of the preventive effects were seen in comparisons between MBSR in the community and people in the MBSR research studies who received no treatment – groups who were significantly different Symptoms were baseline.
“The fact that MBSR incidents appear to be minor is important because most mindfulness-based interventions are derivatives of MBSR and are at the root of the practices we see in schools, healthcare and the workplace,” says Hirshberg . “It’s really important to know the prevalence of people who have side effects.”
However, Hirshberg warns, this does not mean that nobody who participates in MBSR will suffer harm. It remains important to expand research to understand what small numbers of people experience with side effects. Hirshberg also noted that data limitations prevented them from investigating whether socioeconomic status or race and ethnicity were related to the damage.
Another question that needs further investigation is the subjective interpretation of harm. In some meditation traditions, temporary discomfort, negative thoughts, and unusual somatic experiences can indicate progress in one’s practice.
“The distinction is not always made clear enough when we hear of damage cases,” says Hirshberg. “Meditation practice means many different things, from intense meditation retreats for months or even years to 10 minutes of daily practice at home. Most of the claims reported relate to more intensive practice. They are really different categories. We cannot infer damages in intensive practice from this knowledge, nor can we infer potential damages in MBSR or similar programs from damages after intensive practice. “
This article was originally published on the Center for Healthy Minds News. Read the original article.