Meditation has been seen by many as one of the best ways to manage stress and various mental health issues. However, there are often darker sides to meditation that we don’t always see (the topic is overshadowed by talk of meditation’s benefits, but the negatives are increasingly being covered, such as in some illuminating articles from The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, and the Buddhist magazine Tricycle). The researcher Willoughby Britton is doing some important work on the harmful effects of meditation, which have long been recognised in Buddhism.
But what could be the danger of sitting with eyes closed, watching the breath, and simply allowing thoughts and feelings to arise and pass? Well, it seems that the risks are heightened in cases of prolonged, intense meditation, which is the kind you will do on a meditation retreat: this will involve spending a large portion of one’s waking hours practising (usually) mindfulness meditation and not speaking to anyone (these retreats are often silent).
So while joining a meditation retreat may seem like something inherently positive you can do for your mental health and character, this isn’t the answer for everyone. There are some dangers you need to be aware of, especially if you struggle with depression, anxiety, or a psychotic disorder (or at least, have a susceptibility to one, due to your family history). Yet mental health risks can be present, to some degree, for everyone – including expert practitioners.
You may be under the impression that meditation is a ‘cure-all’ method for chronic emotional pain. However, there are some dangers when it comes to meditation retreats, especially for those who are utilising meditation for the first time or who don’t have experience with prolonged, intense meditation, which can lead to unexpectedly profound alterations to one’s consciousness. A lack of preparation, experience, and support at hand can make destabilising states of mind difficult to handle.
Meditation Retreats Can Heighten Psychotic Symptoms
Meditation retreats may actually exacerbate psychotic symptoms in those who already struggle with psychosis (there is research suggesting that mindfulness-based interventions can help those with schizophrenia, but these don’t involve the prolonged meditation that retreats feature). There are also reports of meditation-induced psychosis, which appears to be a particular risk for particularly vulnerable individuals.
It is likewise believed that for people who have schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder in the family, drastically altering one’s consciousness through the use of psychedelics may trigger or provoke (but not cause) the onset of prolonged psychosis. And for individuals who already have schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder, it is generally recommended to avoid using psychedelics as they can worsen symptoms. There is now an increasing body of evidence indicating that meditation retreats may do the same (although not in every case, as mindfulness does seem to be incredibly helpful for many patients).
Since these retreats often require silence and meditation for hours on end, the mind can go into a state of dissociation – experienced as derealisation (where the world around you feels unreal) or depersonalisation (the feeling of being detached from yourself) – which can be terrifying. Especially for someone visiting a retreat for the first time, the long periods of time spent in a quiet environment and lack of distraction for your mind can cause it to go into more detail and intensify already existing delusions or hallucinations. There are also reports of suicidal thoughts – or even deaths caused by suicide – after a retreat due to a sensitive person having experienced intense psychosis during their time at the retreat.
Studies have shown that unwanted effects are common during regular meditation and these will have a higher likelihood of occurring for certain individuals during prolonged meditation. For example, 2017 research published in PLOS One, which Britton was involved with, looked at 73 Western Buddhist meditation practitioners and experts and found that 47% experienced delusions or paranormal beliefs, 42% had hallucinations, and 82% experienced fear, anxiety, panic, or paranoia. The experiences weren’t always debilitating, although 73% reported “moderate to severe impairments”, 17% experienced suicidality, and 17% required inpatient hospitalisation.
However, it’s important to underscore that the PLOS One study involved a small sample size, which can affect the reliability of the evidence. Moreover, it’s difficult or even impossible to determine whether, for any particular individual, meditation causes psychosis. Most interviewees in this study attributed their distressing experiences to meditation – but there could be other factors involved, meditation and psychosis could – by chance – coincide, or meditation may follow psychosis (with the fixation on meditation itself being an early symptom of psychosis).
Untreated Trauma May Rear Its Head
If you have an untreated trauma or have experienced trauma in your life, a meditation retreat may result in it surfacing to your conscious awareness, and perhaps in quite a forceful and overwhelming manner. Distraction and day-to-day life chores and activities are often enough to hold back the most severe symptoms of trauma. However, on the back end, trauma is often affecting us more than we see.
When you go to a meditation retreat, you are forced to sit with your mind for long periods of time, which can cause traumatic memories and images to appear in your mind. Meditation (it should not be forgotten) can be a powerful practice that breaks down the normal barriers and defences we set up that separate our conscious mind from the more unpleasant material that exists in our unconscious.
If you are at a retreat and don’t have mental health help available, your trauma can cause distressing symptoms that can be difficult to manage. Whenever this occurs, it may not be best to stick out the retreat or just to view your experiences as simply ‘part of the process’. Seeking out professional help might be necessary.
Meditation Retreats Can Worsen a Mental Health Crisis, Depression, and Anxiety
If you are having a mental health crisis due to any distressing symptoms, including depression and anxiety, you may be considering a mindfulness retreat. Nevertheless, it’s important to note that a mindfulness retreat can make matters worse.
Spending long periods of time in thought and without distraction can cause people to have more time to think through suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm. It can also cause you to feel alone, frightened, overwhelmed, or confused because of the distressing thoughts and emotions you’re experiencing. On the other hand, when properly learnt and practised, mindfulness can alleviate emotional suffering because it allows one to watch negative thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations in a curious, detached, and non-judgemental way, which prevents them from intensifying.
You might think a meditation retreat is inherently a therapeutic environment, since it’s quiet, in nature, and without your usual distractions, but it’s important to remember that you will be lacking regular social interaction (so you can focus just on your mind), and for people struggling with depression and anxiety, this can heighten existing feelings of isolation and worsen the issues that one joined the retreat to resolve. So, if you are already experiencing intense feelings of loneliness due to depression, or loneliness is a cause of your depression, you might want to reconsider joining a silent mindfulness retreat.
Meditation Retreat Leaders Are Not (Typically) Trained Therapists
Most importantly, it’s important to remember that meditation retreat leaders are not trained therapists in most cases and therefore are not trained in assisting you if you do have an adverse reaction during the retreat.
Advice received during a meditation retreat can be unwarranted or even harmful. If you are in a sensitive place in your life, it’s best to get your information and advice from a trained therapist who knows your mental health background and understands what might be helpful for you (which often doesn’t involve just continuing with the meditation that triggered or worsened your emotional distress in the first place).
Increasingly, meditation teachers are paying more attention to the mental health crises that may arise during a retreat, but this does not mean that you can join any retreat and expect to find the psychological support you might need.
If you are hoping to join a meditation retreat to help with emotional distress that is severe, chronic, hard to deal with, or leading to impairment, consider seeing a mental health professional first, as you can discuss with them the pros and cons of joining a retreat. It is not always the case that joining a meditation retreat will be a high-risk decision when you struggle with mental health issues (it could have the effect of unsticking you from the rut you’re in, providing you with immense, unprecendeted relief). However, you need to be aware of the risks and know how to respond as soon as you notice any worsening of your symptoms.
This article was developed in partnership with BetterHelp. All views expressed are my own.