The Dark Side Of Mindfulness

“Similar to attention-enhancing drugs like coffee, Ritalin and cocaine, meditation can increase focus and alertness,” says Britton. “But when taken too far that can lead to anxiety, panic and insomnia, because there is both neuroanatomical and neurochemical overlap between attention and arousal systems in the brain. You can only crank up your attention dial so far before you start feeling anxious or stop sleeping.”

The bigger picture

Still, mindfulness does appear to benefit many people.

“Probably, for the average person, it can help with mental health promotion,” says Julieta Galante at the University of Cambridge, who recently conducted a meta-analysis reviewing the evidence to date. Overall, she found that there was a positive effect, though there was large variation between studies. Like Britton, she thinks that we need more nuance in our understanding of the specific situations in which mindfulness may or may not be useful, alongside a greater investigation of the potential adverse effects.

“We really haven’t even started to unpack this,” says Galante. She notes that most of the studies have only looked at the effects over relatively short time periods, whereas some of the adverse effects may not emerge until much later – which is important to understand, since she points out that the standard advice is to continue meditating every day for the rest of your life. “My concern is that more and more people are practising meditation every day. And maybe it’s all fine during an eight-week course, but what happens then?”

Looking outward?

What can we do if our own mindfulness practice is no longer working as anticipated? Galante’s meta-analysis showed that in many cases, mindfulness was no better for mental health than many other positive interventions, like physical exercise. In which case, the simplest option may be to switch to another activity that is also known to boost your overall wellbeing.

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