Enlightenment's Evil Twin

♊, M., Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
♊, M., Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Mindfulness therapy comes at a high price for some, say experts

Much-hyped therapy can reduce relapses into depression – but it can have troubling side effects

This is my synopsis of an article that appeared in The Guardian

Enthusiasm is booming for mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) courses. An Oxford University study claims that MBCT is as effective as taking antidepressants. Mindfulness therapy involves sitting still, focusing on your breath, noticing when your attention drifts and bringing it back to your breath – and it is surprisingly challenging. But, psychiatrists have sounded warnings that along with the benefits, mindfulness meditation can have troubling side-effects.

Troubling Side-Effects

The concern comes not from critics of mindfulness but from supporters, such as Dr Florian Ruths, consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in south London, England. Dr Ruths has launched an investigation into the adverse reactions of MBCT, which have included rare cases of “depersonalization”, where people feel like they are watching themselves as in a movie. Sometimes you can feel as if you are floating above yourself, as a detached observer of your thoughts, feelings, or body. Some people also describe the experience of depersonalization as feeling separated from people or from the world as if by a glass wall.

warn signMany people have a passing experience of depersonalization or derealization at some point. But when feelings of depersonalization keep occurring or never completely go away, it is classified in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as a mental disorder. Chronic depersonalization can be psychologically harmful if not treated properly.

See my post Depersonalization and Derealization [Infographic]

“While mindfulness meditation doesn’t change people’s experience, things can feel worse before they feel better,” Marie Johansson, clinical lead at Oxford University’s Mindfulness Center said. “As awareness increases, your sensitivity to experiences increases. If someone is feeling vulnerable or is not well supported, it can be quite daunting. It can bring up grief and all kinds of emotions, which need to be capably held by an experienced and suitably trained teacher”.

Falling For Magic Pill

“You sometimes get the impression from the enthusiasm about mindfulness helping with depression and anxiety that it is a magic pill you can apply without effort,” says Ed Halliwell, who teaches MBCT classes in London, England. “You start watching your breath and all your problems are solved. It is not like that at all. You are working with the heart of your experiences, learning to turn towards them, and that is difficult and can be uncomfortable.”

“There is a lot of enthusiasm for mindfulness-based therapies and they are very powerful interventions,” Ruths said. “But they can also have side-effects. Mindfulness is delivered to potentially vulnerable people with mental illness, including depression and anxiety, so it needs to be taught by people who know the basics about those illnesses, and when to refer people for specialist help.”

Mindfulness experts say extreme adverse reactions are rare and are most likely to follow prolonged periods of meditation, such as weeks on a silent retreat. But the studies and concerns of psychiatrists and supporters represent a new strain of critical thinking about mindfulness meditation amidst an avalanche of hype about its benefits.

Mindfulness therapy comes at a high price for some, say experts | The Guardian

See also my posts Dark Side of Meditation and Blank Minds and Tramp Souls

4 comments

  1. Laura Zuckoff

    The question is, do these studies study people who include a metta style practice? Seems to me, to learn to focus on the here and now, absent of including simulataneous, a tool that strengthens our capacity for relating with friendliness, kindness and compassion to ourselves and each and every person on the planet, it’s like going to the gym and only working the muscles on the right side of our body. Bound to cause imbalances. Thanks for the post. It points out the truth, that we are still learning how to use mindfulness tools safely and to the highest good.

  2. Scott at SkepticMeditations.com

    Hi Laura:

    Studies: The studies are related to the efficacy/risks of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) that incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy with mindfulness-based stress reduction into an 8-session group program.

    Metta meditation: Metta meditation practices do not appear to be included in standard MBCT courses.

    There are endless varieties of methods for focusing on, praying for, affirming or meditating on love, compassion, and kindness. I’ve used many of these methods myself and have felt emotional and psychological benefits.

    Good analogy of going to the gym to workout our muscles (brain, mind, emotions). I agree mindfulness practices and mental disciplines have many benefits.

    Risks: But, the question remains of those rare cases of people who experience depersonalization-derealization. Meditation on “love”, or metta practice for example, may or many not exempt practitioners from psychological risks of depersonalization. (See my post, coming soon, about depersonalization-derealization).

    Care to share any of your experiences with metta meditation? You have valuable insights. I see you too have a blog, though I couldn’t locate posts.

    I appreciate that you share your insights and experiences. I learn from and love feedback.

  3. Johnny Page

    I love and respect the lectures of Alan Watts, and the work of mankind’s great scientists, but Buddhism and Atheism have failed me, and the latter I can not contest honestly/intellectually. I am left a shell, my thumb types while my conciseness observes and trembles.

  4. Scott

    What’s up, Johnny? Would you mind clarifying what you mean by Buddhism and Atheism “failed me” and perhaps we can discuss your question/concern.

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