The potential risks of mindfulness

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While perhaps not at the level of a craze, mindfulness is a practice that has developed a bridgehead into schools in recent times. I don’t want to single-out individual schools because they clearly have the best of intentions, but if you do a quick Google news search, you will find plenty of examples where mindfulness is linked to general wellbeing and the reduction of stress and anxiety.

Mindfulness is a form of meditation derived from the practices of Buddhism but intentionally shorn of its religious overtones. A recent review article for Perspectives on Psychological Science sounds a loud note of caution. According to the authors, mindfulness research has been plagued by poor methodology and the potential harm caused by mindfulness practices has not been adequately researched (in another sign of methodological problems, a large systematic review of the field was recently retracted by the editors of PLOS One).

It may at first sound baffling that sitting very still and emptying your mind could incur harm. Perhaps the most obvious negative impact is the one that attends all alternative therapies – opportunity cost. For instance, if you think mindfulness is the solution to a mental health problem, you may not make use of other approaches with a proven track record such as aerobic exercise.

However, you may find it surprising that there is potential for direct harm caused by the mindfulness activities themselves. Such meditation-related ‘adverse effects’ may include, ‘psychosis, mania, depersonalization, anxiety, panic, traumatic-memory re-experiencing, and other forms of clinical deterioration.’

Unfortunately, we do not know enough about the potential for such adverse effects because best research practice is often not followed in mindfulness studies. For instance, studies often rely on subjects spontaneously volunteering information on negative experiences rather than systematically setting out to collect this information and this is likely to lead to an underestimate of any potential problems.

It is unclear how this relates to the kind of mindfulness practiced in schools. It seems unlikely to me that practices that I have seen reported by newspapers, such as giving students a couple of quiet minutes before a test, could lead to serious adverse effects. Indeed, the neurological evidence that the Perspectives on Psychological Science authors point to as perhaps explaining some of these negative effects seems to relate to more extended practice of meditation techniques.

However, there is also growing evidence that adolescence is a time of continued and unfinished brain development. It therefore seems plausible that young people may be more vulnerable to any adverse effects from mindfulness training. The fact that we lack evidence at this stage does not mean that the practice of mindfulness is completely safe.

Mindfulness, in its secular incarnation, is also a psychological therapy and, as such, something quite different to what teachers are trained to deliver. Would teachers be aware of any potential negative consequences of this treatment? Would they recognise such consequences if they saw them? Is this really the core business of teaching?

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13 thoughts on “The potential risks of mindfulness

  1. ijstock says:

    There is no such thing as a risk-free treatment. For what it is worth, I started using mindfulness well before it became widely-known, in desperation at the mental state that the stress of the teaching profession was leaving me in. I tend to be – and was – extremely sceptical of such things, but was struck by the almost immediate benefits of following a short, directed online course (Headspace). Within two or three sessions, I noticed a distinct improvement in state of mind. This has continued over the years, during which I have had to deal with more serious stress-related effects. Mindfulness has reliably alleviated the worst depths during this time. The only issue I found was that maintaining a daily regime as advised did seem to lead to diminishing returns. As a result, I tend not to practise daily, and reserve sessions for times when things are difficult. Even now, I find immediate help on recommencing, and this continues for perhaps a week or two, by which time I can normally manage without again.

    I am by no means inclined to believe in alternative therapies, but am convinced that mindfulness is a genuinely beneficial thing.

      • Angela gabrielle fry says:

        How can a practice just involving bringing your thoughts back to the moment,cause severe Mental illness,that’s ludicrous!

  2. Thank you for this Greg. I will leave out personal story because it is about my daughter. However harm is more than possible

    Teachers are dealing with the general public, minors who have to be there, and yet I do not see that any contradictions are given. Which therapist or social worker would ever allow themself to be placed in this position?

  3. chrismwparsons says:

    Regarding the opportunity cost consideration, if what we are effectively using is a focusing technique to help calm the noise of the mind prior to embarking on the lesson (for example, a minute of listening to a chime until it is silent), could this not be an opportunity multiplier…?

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  6. Willy Saffire says:

    It is hard to believe that Mindfulness Meditation coulld be harmful. Nevertheless, having read this, now I am reluctant to try it. I wonder if these dangers only apply to Mindfulness Meditation or others? I also wonder if the people who experienced such harn, already had some type of psychological or psychotic problem. This really needs to be researched.

    • ijstock says:

      I must admit, I haven’t followed all of this discussion, but I am saddened to think that people may have been put off trying it, if that is the case. I struggled with mental health as a result of teaching, and despite my scepticism, I found mindfulness the one thing that did (and does) reliably make a positive difference to my state of mind. I don’t fully know why; it may be as simple as controlling one’s breathing. But for my money, it was far more effective than any number of anti-depressant drugs.

  7. Jeff says:

    But, it is not “ludicrous;” not if your “thoughts” are ones you kept hidden because of the abuse you experienced surrounding them. With kids, that may well be the case; especially adolescents. It does not even need to be overt abuse, but, just a lot of stress that an immature person, like a child, can be encumbered by that no one really knows about or has a handle on; stress from dealing with all kinds of matters. A teacher who is not a psychologist and not functioning in that role, through mindfulness sessions, may very well and unknowingly ‘open up a can of (mental) worms.’ Well-adjusted people seem to benefit from it as a basic relaxation to daily ‘normal’ stressors. Teachers, if they are going to employ something like this, need to be well trained in it and keep it focused on behavior in the classroom. There ought to be a program of counseling that is available for any referral that may be advised to recommend. There is a reason why it works so well; it’s powerful. So, implement with care or not at all.

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