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.
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.
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.
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.