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When Meditation Worsens Depression or Anxiety

We’ve all heard that one of the best ways to improve your mental health naturally is by meditating. While meditation can be a potent tool of self-improvement, it isn’t a utopian option for everyone. Many people like to assume that since it’s a “natural” activity and doesn’t require ingestion of chemical substances that it’s some omnipotent or divine technique that will solve all of life’s problems.

There is certainly a lot of good that can come about from consistent meditation assuming you are a person that responds well to the practice. That said, when dealing with severe forms of depression and/or anxiety, it is important to proceed with caution. In many cases certain types of meditation can amplify depression by increasing slow brain waves in certain regions. In other cases certain types of meditation can cause a relaxation-induced anxiety or may heighten your awareness to an uncomfortable extent.

Factors to consider when meditation worsens depression or anxiety

Before you proceed with black and white thinking that meditation is either good for a person or bad for a person, it is important to consider each person’s individual experience. Factors such as the type of meditation, frequency and duration of the sessions, whether the person is using proper technique, etc. – can all influence outcomes resulting from the practice.

1. Type of meditation

Most people assume that all types of meditation result in the same neurological outcomes. In other words, a person automatically becomes calm, focused, and happy. However, there is sufficient preliminary evidence to conclude that the different types of meditation affect the brain in unique ways. For example, a person practicing Loving-Kindness meditation may experience greater activity in the thalamus as a result of their practice, while someone practicing Transcendental meditation (TM) will likely experience a decrease.

It is important to consider the subtype of meditation that you’re practicing. Should you notice an increase in anxiety and depression, you may have chosen a suboptimal subtype to fit your particular neurochemistry. There are reasons that certain types of meditation (e.g. Vipassana) work better for depression and anxiety than others.

2. Average duration

Another highly important factor to think about is how long you’re meditating each day. Humans evolved seeking external stimuli, not constantly looking inwards. Some time spent looking inwards is clearly beneficial, but introspection for prolonged periods of time is highly isolating and not what your brain evolved to do.

If you’re just starting with meditation and you spend several hours meditating each day, you’re going to bite off more than you can chew. Emotions may start surfacing that you don’t know how to deal with, you may feel depersonalized or just really weird. To avoid the trap of excessive meditation, limit the time you spend meditating to just 10 minutes per day; sometimes less is more.

3. Frequency of meditation

Most people who meditate do so once per day, but some people take things to a whole new extreme. Not only are they meditating for prolonged periods of time, they are doing this several times per day. While greater duration and frequency may be possible for an advanced meditation practitioner (i.e. monk), there’s no need to go overboard.

Spending too much time meditating may be interfering with your social life, work, or other commitments. It’s not necessary to meditate more than once per day for beginners. For a person that’s inexperienced, it may seem like a good idea to meditate a lot and as frequently as possible, but this may lead to more harm than good – sometimes in the form of depression and anxiety.

4. Technique

If you’re practicing meditation, you should be aware of proper technique. If you’re using improper technique, you may not get any benefit from the practice. Not only will you probably not get benefit if you haven’t been properly taught, you could be exacerbating feelings of anxiety and/or depression. For example, in Vipassana meditation, it’s important to gradually shift your focus back to focusing on the breath.

Someone who is improperly taught may get mad or upset when their mind wanders, which may exacerbate their anxiety. They may then conclude that they cannot even meditate and that it’s just “too hard.” This may turn into another setback that produces more depression and anxiety. Make sure you’re educated on proper technique or you may become exceptionally frustrated.

5. Individual factors

It is important to know yourself before you even start meditating. If you’re someone that has a past of dealing with relaxation-induced anxiety, you may not want to choose a meditation practice that increases baseline relaxation. (There are types that actually increase stimulation and arousal such as Vajrayana). Also consider your individual circumstances such as: amount of sleep you’re getting, whether you’re taking medications (or supplements), have isolated yourself socially, have changed behaviors – all of these factors can influence your experience with meditation.

Why meditation can sometimes make anxiety and depression worse…

If you’ve experienced a worsening of depression or anxiety from meditation, there are several theories that may help explain “why.” Understand that there are likely different causal factors for each person. For one person, meditation may elicit a resurgence of repressed trauma – leading to anxiety and depression. For another it may cause changes in neurotransmitter concentrations that could provoke anxiety.

  • Amplification of awareness: Meditation is a powerful tool that tends to amplify our self-awareness. This increase in self-awareness is generally a good thing, we become more conscious of negative behaviors, thought patterns, and emotions. However, it may also amplify the focus of our current emotional state. For some people, the increase in awareness is a good thing, but for others, it may evoke a state of learned helplessness.
  • Brain activity changes: There is sufficient scientific data demonstrating that meditation changes brain function. Not only do certain brain regions become more active than in the past, they can actually become thicker as a result of a sustained meditation practice. The problem is that if these changes are not beneficial to our functioning, they could be difficult to reverse and may cause us to feel anxious or depressed.
  • Brain waves: Most meditation practices tend to readjust our brain wave patterns. For example, transcendental meditation increases alpha waves in the frontal lobes. It is thought that Tibetan meditation increases gamma waves in the same region. Various types of meditation may also slow brain waves in certain regions, leading to an increase in depression or anxiety.
  • Depersonalization: A common experience with meditation is that you begin to notice a change in consciousness. You may start to feel unlike your normal “default” self. For most people, changes in neurological functioning as a result of meditation are gradual, but for others they can occur rapidly. The change in our brain functioning as well as introspection can lead us to the unknown. This “unknown” is something we have never felt before, and may cause us to feel temporarily depersonalized. Depersonalization is known to cause anxiety and may make us feel depressed.
  • Emotional upheavals: Another common experience is that of emotional upheavals during meditation. These often stem from repressed memories and/or trauma that emerge when our brainwaves and brain activity slows. Certain emotions buried in the subconscious resurface and make us feel incredibly uncomfortable, often provoking anxiety and depression. Typically these can be avoided or dealt with by not over-doing a meditation practice.
  • Homeostasis: Although for most people restoring homeostasis results in feeling happy, healthy, and energized, others have found that their “default” biological homeostatic state is problematic. If you have spent countless hours trying to alter your biology for the better, but meditation constantly shifts your brain back to square one, it may lead to anxiety or depression; especially if your natural demeanor is anxious or avoidant.
  • Introspection: Most types of meditation are of an introspective-nature, meaning we look inward in attempt to find calmness and serenity. The consistent practice may come to increase our introspective awareness even when we aren’t meditating. If you are already introverted and highly self-aware, an increase may feel like a sensory overload. Additionally even if you are highly extroverted, shifting to a more introverted awareness may result in anxiety and possibly temporary depression.
  • Neurotransmitter levels: The concentrations of various neurotransmitters change in result of brain activity alterations. With consistent meditation practice, we are gradually altering the way the brain works. Different brain waves are associated with varying levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. The problem is that certain types of meditation may drastically increase (or decrease) these neurochemicals, leading us to potentially feel more depressed or anxious.
  • Not natural: A valid argument could be made that meditation is not natural because humans didn’t evolve to sit with our eyes closed and spend large portions of the day focusing on internal sensations. It could be that excessive time spent focusing on internal sensations with our eyes-closed may make some people feel naturally more anxious and/or more depressed.
  • Relaxation-induced anxiety: Many types of meditation increase our parasympathetic relaxation and promote slower brain wave activity. This feeling of relaxation may feel like the cat’s meow to one person, but for another, the relaxation actually causes anxiety. This is a phenomenon known as “relaxation-induced anxiety” by which some people react to feelings of relaxation with feelings of anxiousness.
  • Repressed memories or trauma: If you have any repressed traumatic memories, meditation may not be ideal for you. While re-experiencing the traumatic emotion is generally one of the ways by which a person can overcome PTSD, not everyone is ready to re-experience them. These are best dealt with in a therapeutic setting (e.g. with an experienced psychotherapist). Clearly attempting to deal with repressed memories or trauma can lead to anxiety and depression – especially if you try to cope on your own.
  • Transitory phase: Some people go through a transitory phase by which they feel worse for a temporary period of time until their brain activity and waves begin to stabilize to fit the pattern being induced by the meditative practice.  If your brain chemistry is abnormal, the meditation may be attempting to correct it and you’ll go through an uncomfortable transition with worsening of anxiety and/or depression.  Some people actually push through the increase in discomfort and end up finding that it subsides, leading them to a new state of consciousness.

What to do if meditation makes your depression or anxiety worse

There are a few things you can consider if a daily meditation practice is worsening your anxiety or depression. These include: discontinuing the practice, reducing the duration (and/or frequency), considering a different type of meditation, brushing up on technique, and/or persist through these current feelings.

1. Stop

Most people that are aware of the fact that meditation is increasing their anxiety and/or depression will simply discontinue the practice. Stopping the meditation should help your brain gradually transition into a state of functioning that isn’t influenced by the meditative practice. Obviously with any sort of treatment – regardless of whether its chemical or non-chemical, discontinuing when something doesn’t help is common sense.

2. Reduce the duration (or frequency)

If you’re relatively new to meditation and you’re meditating for an extended period of time each day, it may be too much for you to handle. Long-term meditators are more equipped to handle longer sessions at greater frequency than those who are new to the scene. If you’re a new meditator, try limiting your time to between 10 and 20 minutes per day and limit yourself to one session. Exceeding 20 minutes (especially as a beginner) may be reason as to why your anxiety and depression are increasing.

3. Consider another type of meditation

Aforementioned was the fact that different types of meditation result in drastically different neurological outcomes. You may want to take some time to learn and investigate another meditation practice if the one you’ve been using seems like it may not be a good fit. There are many different types for you to chose from, just to name a few of the more common ones: TM, Vipassana, Loving-Kindness, or even a guided (audio) meditation.

4. Brush up on technique

Have you been instructed on how to properly meditate? If you aren’t meditating with proper technique, it’s difficult to blame meditation for your increase in anxiety or depression. To get the most benefit out of your meditation practice, learn from an instructor or monk. Also consider the fact that poor technique may be responsible for poor (or adverse) results.

5. Persist

Another option is to persist in your meditative practice and accept that you are experiencing some turbulence along the way. While excessive turbulence for an extended period may be a sign that meditation isn’t a good fit for you, nearly everyone experiences some emotional turbulence throughout their practice. Even beginners may notice a “storm before the calm.”

In other words, the meditation practice may be working, but the person needs to push through some sort of discomfort. The feelings of depression and anxiety may be extremely uncomfortable to cope with, but they may eventually dissipate as you continue with regular meditation practice. Always consider that these unwanted feelings may be a “storm” before a “calm” before you discontinue your practice.

Considering: Correlation vs. Causation

While it may be easy for you to posit that meditation 100% caused your anxiety and/or depression to worsen, can you really be sure? Although it is important to trust yourself and your experience, consider other factors that could’ve been responsible for provoking a worsening of anxiety and depression before blaming meditation. Did you recently switch medications? Did your job become more stressful and as a result of the build-up of stress, you blamed meditation?

Some people may be misattributing the meditation to worsening their problems, when in fact its an entirely different factor. Most research indicates that when done properly, most types of meditation tend to improve mood and reduce anxiety. However, it is important to realize that there are case studies suggesting that meditation may be more problematic than beneficial for certain individuals.

Have you experienced a worsening of depression or anxiety from meditation?

If you have experienced a worsening of depression and/or anxiety from meditation, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Talk about the type of meditation practice you had pursued (e.g. Mindfulness, TM, etc.), how long you had meditated each day, and how you felt pre-meditation (before the practice) compared to after you had been meditating for awhile. Also feel free to mention any other factors that may have contributed to a worsening of your anxiety or depression besides the meditation.

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{ 34 comments… add one }
  • Joan April 24, 2015, 3:15 pm

    I appreciate the comprehensiveness of this article – there’s a lot of information here and I do agree that not all meditations fit everyone. I think it is important to find the meditation practice that suit you. For many years I tried many meditation practices…and nothing really landed for me. I wasn’t drawn to any of them, then a co worker mentioned TM and I did some research and decided to give it a try.

    I learned from a qualified teacher and that made a huge difference to me in understanding the process and I felt very supported in what might come up as I continued my practice. And yes meditation can stir up the emotions and the mind, for me having a teacher I could go to with questions was wonderful. I have continued with my TM practice for over a decade, being regular – twice daily with my practice makes for a smoother path for sure. I wish folks who are open and seeking a meditation practice all the best…stay open until you find one (and the supports) that work for you!

  • W. Sweeny May 23, 2015, 11:51 pm

    I have a generalized anxiety disorder and once tried taking a mindfulness class and I just found I could not concentrate as directed, and found it was frustrating and anxiety-producing for me. I went to about four classes and then just quit. I thought I must be odd.

    Another time I was working with a therapist on my anxiety and she tried repeating a relaxation-type tape while I consciously focused on relaxing my body. Again, this actually made me more “nervous” and was not at all relaxing to me. She did not suggest trying it again. I tend to “live in my head” too much I think and I am glad I read this article which acknowledged that meditation is not for everyone. I was thinking again that there was something wrong with me.

  • Georgr July 6, 2015, 4:36 pm

    Not all practice is suitable for every individual like autistics. It may increase depressive thoughts.

  • patton July 13, 2015, 6:58 pm

    Thanks for this article. I agree with what George said. I’m diagnosed w/ mild asperger’s, and for females this means more anxiety. I’ve tried countless times and ways to meditate; but mostly, I just sit and focus on my breath. It makes both my anxiety and depression much, much worse. And then I get mad at myself for not being able to do something that is supposed to help me. Yoga actually helps me more because I need to move my body at all times–that is when my mind tends to calm down. After having read this, I feel a little freer to not practice meditation.

  • Roger D September 29, 2015, 6:22 pm

    I have been researching meditation and mindfulness for about three years, and feel that the subject of this article is very important to individuals with mental illness. So I want to say thank you. I also would caution people from making decisions regarding whether or not to meditate based on this singular piece. Please research it further for yourself. Also it may be helpful to discuss meditation with a therapist familiar with DBT. Finally, I would appreciate it if the author(s) would post their resources for this article. I would certainly find it helpful. Thank you again, RDH

  • Matthew October 27, 2015, 1:12 am

    I attended a Vipassana Retreat from April 29th to May 10th. I had been having some anxious symptoms for awhile now but when I went for a ten-day meditation retreat it seemed to exacerbate all the anxious symptoms. I had a full-blown panic attack for the first time in my life and since that point I’ve been struggling alot with symptoms of OCD, GAD like symptoms. I really want to believe in meditation but after that ten-day retreat I am reconsidering the effectiveness of it.

    • jasonbroskie February 23, 2016, 6:44 pm

      I experienced the same thing. It has been with me for years and continues to come back. What should I do? -j

  • ken December 24, 2015, 4:17 am

    This is my biggest issue and has set me back a lot instead of actually helping with my issues. I just ended up suppressing them a whole lot and now I’m even more lost than ever. I hope I can come out of this because it has happened a couple times and I did not know what was happening. The learned helplessness and depersonalization is the issue. Oh yeah and coming of of an anti-anxiety med. I messed up once, but now twice.

  • Joe Magee December 26, 2015, 7:20 am

    This is a great article. As someone who has been meditating for about 7 years I can say I’ve experienced alot of these symptoms. I have high anxiety and meditation has made it worse. I would like to mention a couple of points. Meditation tends to bring our emotions and feelings to the surface. The problem is without some type of guidance on how to relate to these emotions they can create havoc for us.

    We question everything from our relationship to our job, etc. For me having a Buddhist path is important. I use the buddhas wisdom to navigate me through this road. I belong to a Sangha in the Dzogchen tradition with excellent teachers. For me Vipassana seems to work the best. Hope this helps. Joe

  • maggi January 26, 2016, 11:52 pm

    I was told once, if it doesn’t feel right don’t do it. Meditation is not for everyone…

  • Matt Horner January 30, 2016, 3:53 pm

    I noticed a massive increase in anxiety from practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique. After just the 3rd meditation which the duration was only 12mins my heart starting racing and I felt really anxious. I agree certain types of meditation are not for everybody.

    • Ankit February 24, 2016, 12:05 pm

      I also felt anxiety after practicing TM. Now I have started mindfulness (breathing). It really helps. It has a very calming effect. It gives freshness to my mind and body. While doing meditation I experience lot of yawning and tears. It totally pacifies me.

    • VR March 11, 2016, 9:49 pm

      Interesting. I’ve been feeling the same way with TM. But I don’t feel anxiety during the meditation, I feel it afterward while I go about my day. I’ve been trying to find out if this will pass i.e. this is just a start-up symptom, but I can’t seem to get a straight answer.

  • srinidhi February 21, 2016, 10:32 am

    It’s a GREAT article. Few people are relived not to practice mediation, thinking it’s like an addiction to escape from real world problem. Few stop mediating after practiced for few years, reasoning they went through a trauma of anxiety, fear & depression. Few writes a book about their eternal – internal journey just meditating & living alone.Few starts teaching about meditation. How to conclude? I leave it reader. We need good air to breathe, money to live, good job to satisfy our day, good relationships & no sickness mentally-physically. Will mediation clears & solves all these, finally make us feel bliss?

  • FT March 16, 2016, 9:29 pm

    I suffered from GAD and was introduced to TM by my brother. After the first session I was nauseous almost immediately after. This happened after every session. I was told to shorten my sessions. The about the fourth or fifth day of practice, I started to get really bad anxiety. It got so bad, I could not function in daily life.

    It took about six months for the worst of it to die down but I still get bouts of extreme anxiety. I learned from my brother that another practitioner developed psychosis after practicing TM. Scary! Never going back to TM. Mindfulness meditation was kinder. Guided meditation is the best for me. Thanks for this posting and all the comments. I thought I was alone.

  • Agrud May 16, 2016, 12:26 pm

    Hi lately I’m going through a bad phase in life. But I came out of it ASAP. I was introduced to meditation when I was 14 by my parents but I’ve always dislike doing it. Now that I’m older, I have read articles on meditation, afterlife, and I just have this strong craving to meet God through meditation.

    But when I started my meditation for the first time, I just closed my eyes and focused on my third eye chakra, I felt nausea, heart beat started to beat fast and I felt like I couldn’t breathe properly. And I could feel waves of energy reaching out in every cells in my body. Even after I ended the meditation, I could feel the strong waves of energy and vibration.

    But what happened after that is quite funny. I felt sad the whole day, I just feel like crying out loud and I keep thinking about God. How I hate my life as a human and I have this wish that I just want to leave this world and go to God. I feel very depressed living my life as a human, I feel that my stay in this world, this body of mine is all temporary.

    I keep longing to go back to God. What is happening to me? And how can I control these emotions? I do not want to give up on meditation. Not yet. Not so soon.

    • R Robinson July 25, 2016, 6:00 am

      Hi Agrud, This is very sad that you are feeling this way and very difficult. I wonder if a counsellor, perhaps someone who understands meditation, could help you with the difficult emotions you are having. I also wonder whether you can find God, here in this life, in this universe, in the beauty of nature.

      I do believe God, or the Universe, is here with us now in all our humanness, with all our feelings. I also believe that we are not meant to struggle alone, but need to get the help from another kind, caring person when things are getting hard. Sounds like you are a very sensitive soul, which is lovely. Hope you can get the help you need. Best wishes.

  • fariba May 21, 2016, 10:45 am

    Many years ago I tried TM, it didn’t have any special effect on me, but I didn’t continue it because I found it boring. Last year I became familiar with Vipassana, I tried it (ten minutes a day). It mad me to feel so lonely, the feeling that I had when I was a child, and I had repressed it these years. I discontinued the practice temporarily.

    I think if I can deal with this feeling – I can continue Vipassana, but I ‘m not sure about it. In addition, during those times, I had strong feelings about everything and every situation. To me it was like driving a very fast car and difficult to control it.

    • Fanak June 1, 2016, 5:49 pm

      Thanks for sharing dear.

  • Thankful May 22, 2016, 5:17 pm

    I started with a therapist whose whole practice revolved around relaxation tapes he recorded. Very basic and similar to a short yoga nidra audio I have. I became more and more anxious. I do not, cannot have a happy visualization. Makes me high anxiety to keep trying.

    His response was to insist I continue twice daily sessions, and gave me a list of actions/thoughts that included not continuing was a lack/weakness of character. Felt so shamed. I am so thankful I found this article. Also, found scholarly research on the anxiety some of us feel.

    • Jean July 9, 2016, 9:52 pm

      Thanks for this. I feel this too.

  • Lucas May 27, 2016, 6:59 am

    I am new to meditation but I heard some people say it’s a bit harmful so I’d like to know about it, thanks!

  • Jasmine May 27, 2016, 7:26 am

    Meditation is a practice, so you don’t have to worry while doing it, just do it correctly and follow the instructions given to you. That’s all!

  • Jordan June 6, 2016, 10:48 am

    I think in this case, the meditation practitioner would have taken it to extreme that’s why it worsened the problem. Because meditation is safe, so many health care providers recommend it to their patients.

  • Amanda June 6, 2016, 1:45 pm

    When you feel you are more stressed while doing meditation, it means you are not ready so it’s better to take a complete rest for your body.

  • Tiffany June 26, 2016, 9:26 pm

    I meditated for like an hour last night and five mins this morning and this morning my anxiety was very bad. I’m glad I found this article. I guess as a beginner I should only meditate five mins.

  • Jean July 9, 2016, 9:50 pm

    So pleased to have found this article. I have meditated for 20 years trying to overcome the anxiety and stress it causes me under the impression that I was failing at it. Teachers and friends always accuse me of doing it wrong and need to practice more. This only makes it worse. So glad to find this site and realize others have the same issues and we are not failures.

    Meditation just does not suit us so don’t try too hard if it doesn’t work. Just stop. It’s only meditation and not the answer to all our troubles for all of us. Thank you for pointing out I’m not alone and its OK to stop if it doesn’t work.

  • Rachel Clucas July 28, 2016, 11:06 am

    Great article and comments. I was diagnosed with BPD back in 1987 and suffers from rapid mood swings etc. Later on in life I become addicted to both alcohol and many other substances. A friend persuaded me to do TM. The organization that instructed did not charge me much money and the teacher was both sublime and grounded.

    Because of my condition he told me to practice for only 5 – 10 mins instead of the usual 20 mins. Shortly after I started practicing I had the mother of all breakdowns. Like all the worst parts of my personality just surfaced and ran riot. After I tried mindfulness but I found it excruciating. The thing I have found the most useful is just to focus on breathing from time to time throughout the day.

    I like to combine breath with simple exercises. Some I have learnt from the physiotherapist others are scaravelli inspired yoga exercises and a little Qi gong. I also take time to admire trees. Doing things slowly rather than mindfully is also important. I used to feel a failure that meditation did not work for me so its been very helpful to know that it simply is not for everyone. All the best to each and every one of you.

  • d July 28, 2016, 11:58 pm

    I wish more people would address the fact that for some people (e.g. those who have an extreme level of inner chaos from severe childhood trauma) meditation can be harmful, as going inside leads only to intolerable terror and pain. This was my experience all my life (and I tried many kinds of meditations and at various times in my life. All they did was at best increase my anxiety, and at worst made me suicidal).

    It wasn’t until now, at the age of 65 (after finally finding competent psychological help at the age of 60) that my inner chaos and terror have decreased enough for me to SOMETIMES feel some calming from very short periods of meditation.

    • Della August 18, 2016, 2:17 pm

      OMG! I had this same outcome-can you elaborate? Would you be able to connect and give me some more info on your experience? I had a horrible experience in meditation over the last two months and I want this ‘suicidal’ ‘unloved’ feeling to go away. How long did it take for these effects to wear off in you?

  • Ann August 11, 2016, 9:01 pm

    I’ve been reading up on TM and watching videos about it — there’s been nothing but good things, not a single word that it could actually worsen depression. Don’t researchers/the TM institution who dwell on their hundreds of positive findings, have a moral obligation to say it could worsen symptoms? So glad I found this article.

  • Cawful August 23, 2016, 6:44 pm

    This article strikes me as having a lot of importance.

    A recognised effect that sometimes happens in psychiatric interventions – cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance – is that a therapy will not work well for a patient and the patient begins to self-blame (or sometimes feel blamed by the therapist) for ‘not trying hard enough’. What the patient or therapist hasn’t taken into account here is the strong individual differences between people, physiologically and psychologically, which will mean that different people will respond differently to different interventions. It’s why personalised medicine is being regarded as the next big goal by geneticists and pharmacologists.

    Unfortunately meditation practitioners can fall into the same trap of not taking individual differences into account and, inadvertently or knowingly, create undeserved self-blame in the student. This is one of the few articles out there that acknowledges this.

    Personally, I have struggled with mindfulness meditation (though not given up) because of panic attacks during both therapist-led and self-led sessions.

    Which brings me to my second point, which I’m afraid is a bit round-about.

    I suffer from an autoimmune disease which, due to the immune system attacking parts of the brain involved in things like the fight or flight response, can have severe anxiety as one of its symptoms. I became badly ill with the autoimmune stuff aged 12, didn’t attend school from that point onwards until going back part time aged 17, and every week day between those ages I was completely alone from the time I woke up until 5.30pm because my parents couldn’t afford to stop working (living out in the countryside meant also no neighbours or foot traffic outside). A big health relapse at age 18 then put me back into the same situation, but by this time anxiety had appeared as a severe symptom.

    The next 2 years, and then another year when I was 23, were particularly extreme for the anxiety, so severe in fact that I entered one long panic attack that was only broken by sleep when I was too exhausted to do anything else. I existed on one tablespoon of cooked lentils and about 200ml of water a day for the first half of those 2 years because I was so permanently nauseous that anything beyond that amount I’d just throw up. I became malnourished and entered clinical starvation, developed hallucinations and 24 hour phobias (even of my mum at one point) and entered a totally depersonalized state where other people lost their appearance of humanity and instead looked like collections of molecules mechanistically interacting.

    The depersonalization was also directed at myself, meaning that I also felt like a terrifyingly impersonal set of molecules so could not even give myself human company. It was an ultimate loneliness, of the kind that monks occasionally encounter when isolation-based unguided (or badly guided) transcendental meditation goes wrong and, instead of losing their sense of self and connecting with the whole world, they lose connection to both (sometimes known as The Dark Night Phenomenon). Their loss of connection results from self-imposed isolation and accompanying introspection, mine resulted from isolation I didn’t choose and during a very vulnerable period of brain development.

    It is hard to exaggerate what psychological suffering it is possible to feel under this state – I’m not given to hyperbole, but Hell on Earth about does it justice – of being at the greatest point of fear, like the strong rush of terror you might feel if you just saw your child fall off a high cliff, almost all the time for years on end. When I re-entered this state for the second time at 23, my mum had to stop me slitting my throat with a knife. I wasn’t depressed. I didn’t want to die, I just couldn’t handle the extreme psychological and physical suffering any more.

    The reason I mention all this is that, in various places, I’ve seen meditation practitioners stating that anxiety and panic are not harmful and should be welcomed with curiosity. If you can do that, great. However, there needs to be awareness that in some individuals with either trauma-caused or endocrine damage-caused anxiety and panic, these states can be serious and dangerous and should not be dismissed so lightly – another great point this article touches on that is rarely mentioned.

    I’ve lost years of my life to anxiety and panic and nearly my life itself. Now at age 33 I still feel broken because, although the derailed fight or flight response is somewhat controlled by drugs, the neural pathways for the panic are now very deep grooves and are easy to slip down. It comes to mind that the maxim ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is hugely naive and also doesn’t take account of whether the amount of suffering involved in a prolonged event is worth the potential gain the sufferer might have in the end.

    I hope I can find a meditation type that doesn’t dip me back into that hellish state – which I know from personal experience can be both severe and prolonged – because I want to not be forever compelled to distract myself from those paths to darkness I know are seething there. But peoples’ individual experiences do need to be taken seriously by practitioners, for the benefit of those affected and for the reputation of the practice.

  • Ella August 24, 2016, 10:58 am

    I’ve meditated on and off for several years now and my meditation routine has always been sporadic and inconsistent because of all the noise that comes with living in crowded social housing. That said, in the past, when I have been consistently meditating, I can definitely feel the positive cumulative effects gained, even after only a week.

    But recent changes in circumstances (being on welfare combined with the chronic worry of future poverty) have caused some kind of profound internal shift in me that I was unaware of until just now. I’ve started meditating again but now I feel worse after each session. This has not happened before. My anxiety has been ramped up immensely.

    It’s depressing because I always felt that meditation was a stand-by comfort blanket, a special reserve source of spiritual comfort should I need it. Now I feel a valuable tool has left me. I shall have to do some research to find an alternative solution, which is one of the reasons I’m here on this site.

    I wish everyone who’s posted here good luck on their quest.

  • Firefly October 28, 2016, 6:36 am

    I used a type of meditation for years where I would just sit with the lights on low and listen to music – but like, *really* listen to it. It was similar to a type of mindfulness practice a counsellor later recommended to me, where you generally just heighten your awareness of your surroundings & your observation skills, and learn to listen rather than to judge the situation. I found it very helpful.

    On the other hand, I recently tried the body scan technique and found it uncomfortable almost right away – I quit when I got to my knees. In a group session we did a guided version of it, and I felt ill – I opened my eyes but since it was a group thing, and the lady’s voice was so calming, I couldn’t fully snap out of it. By the time it was done (and it only lasted a few minutes) I felt so ill that one of the facilitators took me aside to make sure I was alright, and a few others in the group had noticed I looked flushed and ill.

    Even thinking back on it makes me feel a little sick. All that, after less than 5 minutes of that type of meditation. All I can take away from that is that, clearly, not all types of meditation work the same way, and some will impact you more positively or negatively than others….

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