Meditation needs more research: Study finds 25 percent suffer unpleasant experiences

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More than a quarter of people who regularly meditate have had a 'particularly unpleasant' psychological experience related to the practice, including feelings of fear and distorted emotions, a UCL-led study has found.

The research, published in PLOS ONE, also found those who had attended a retreat, those who only practiced deconstructive types of meditation, such as Vipassana (insight) and Koan practice (used in Zen Buddhism), and those with higher levels of repetitive negative thinking, were more likely to report a 'particularly unpleasant' meditation-related experience.

However, the study, which comprised an international online survey of 1,232 people who had at least two months' meditation experience, found and those with a religious belief were less likely to have had a 'particularly unpleasant' experience.

Lead author, researcher Marco Schlosser, (UCL Division of Psychiatry), said: "These findings point to the importance of widening the public and scientific understanding of meditation beyond that of a health-promoting technique.

"Very little is known about why, when, and how such meditation-related difficulties can occur: more research is now needed to understand the nature of these .

"When are unpleasant experiences important elements of meditative development, and when are they merely negative effects to be avoided?"

The study, conducted with researchers at Witten/Herdecke University, Germany, and the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, was triggered by a limited but growing number of research reports and case studies, which indicate psychologically unpleasant experiences can occur during meditative practice. Some traditional Buddhist texts also reference vivid accounts of similar experiences.

However, very little is known about the prevalence of these experiences.

Participants answered the following question: "Have you ever had any particularly unpleasant experiences (e.g. anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, altered sense of self or the world), which you think may have been caused by your meditation practice?".

Meditators also reported how long they had been practicing meditation and the frequency of practice, whether they had attended a meditation retreat at any point in their life and what form of meditation they practiced (attentional, constructive, or deconstructive). They also completed measures of repetitive negative thinking and self-compassion.


  • Of the 1,232 participants, 25.6% indicated that they had previously encountered particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences.
  • More male participants, 28.5%, experienced a particularly unpleasant experience, compared to 23% of female participants.
  • 30.6% of those who did not have a religious belief had a particularly unpleasant experience, compared to 22% of those who had a .
  • More people, 29.2%, who practiced only deconstructive types of meditation reported a particularly unpleasant experience, compared to 20.3% who only engaged in other meditation types.
  • And 29% of those who had been on a (at any point in life) had a particularly unpleasant experience, compared with 19.6%, who had never been on a retreat.

Marco Schlosser added: "Most research on meditation has focussed on its benefits, however, the range of meditative experiences studied by scientists needs to be expanded. It is important at this point not to draw premature conclusions about the potential negative effects of meditation.

"Longitudinal studies will help to learn when, for whom, and under what circumstances these unpleasant experiences arise, and whether they can have long-term effects. This could inform clinical guidelines, mindfulness manuals, and meditation teacher training."

Study limitations

The study only asked one question to capture prevalence of particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences. The data does not provide any indication of the exact type of experiences or their severity and impact. Further, including a list of specific examples (i.e., anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, altered sense of self or the world) in the question about these experiences may have biased participants' responses towards recalling these particular experiences over others.

The study did not assess possible pre-existing , which could have confounded the prevalence estimate of particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences.

The cross-sectional nature of the data does not allow researchers to clearly infer whether meditation caused these experiences.

Explore further

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More information: Unpleasant meditation-related experiences in regular meditators: Prevalence, predictors, and conceptual considerations, PLOS ONE (2019). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216643
Journal information: PLoS ONE

Citation: Meditation needs more research: Study finds 25 percent suffer unpleasant experiences (2019, May 9) retrieved 15 October 2019 from
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May 09, 2019
Meditation can lead to psychosis.
Now when I sit I just feel my damn back hurting ,

May 09, 2019
If the author or researchers had done meditation themselves, they should know that it is normal to have unpleasant experiences.

Meditation is merely stilling the mind to see what's already there. People with a lot of negativity will naturally see their own negative mind, people with less religious or spiritual guidance tends to generate aversion to what they experience. It is not so much the experience itself, but the meditator's attitude towards the experience which generates the impression that "meditation caused you to have unpleasant experiences."

May 09, 2019
It is not so much meditation, as to what attitude are you bringing into meditation, into looking at your mind? Maybe there is not enough good instructions, or that meditation divorced from the religious roots of Buddhism is not complete enough to benefit people. Or simply that a lot of people are inexperienced to follow the instructions properly. Stumbling on the instructions until one learns how to listen and apply properly is part and parcel of learning the skill of meditation.

It's something like riding a bike. Most if not all people fall the first few times. Is it the fault of the activity biking? Or more of just a learning curve?

May 09, 2019
stephencrowley214: Meditation doesn't have to be in lotus position, sit comfortably. What we train is not the body, but the mind.

Also, although the ultimate goal of meditation in Buddhism is to be free from suffering. It is not expected at all that all meditation will be free from unpleasant experiences. It is only when wisdom to see non-self, impermanence and suffering in all conditioned things that one can let go of attachments to everything, that suffering ends. Before that, we can expect meditation to be sometimes suffering, sometimes very blissful. No need to be attached to the notion that meditation must always be blissful. It's also not to say that "no pain, no gain" is true, check the instructions, check your attitude, check if you're following instructions.

May 10, 2019
It is well known that meditations of different schools, release trapped thoughts and emotions. When people feel the spectrum of distractions, then begins the process of transformation. I know you are there, I let you go is your first meditation. Real ancient internal core training is what you find important. What flows from your mind is what your body becomes. Change your mind, change yourself. You become what you practice. Your mind fills your body like a hand fills a glove. Focus on the distractions found in early meditation, and you will not see with your eyes or hear with your ears. The focused mind opens a door. Go through it deeply. Students become teachers for thousands of years. Only the best training is kept.
What is real is that reduction of unhealthy thoughts cause your memory, creative ideas, your energy and health to flow from a transformed mind. Time is all that limits the skill of meditation.

May 11, 2019
Meditation can lead to psychosis
Or could it be that a good proportion of psychotic are attracted by meditation? Most people I met in this area did not look really healthy/mature/rational. Just a feeling.

May 11, 2019
Meditation is merely stilling the mind to see what's already there
I agree, but you forget to count as negativity/immaturity the need for "religious or spiritual guidance", which is, in my opinion rather primitif (irrational). Give few neurons more to a chimps, the first 2 things he would do is to build better weapons, and q religious/spiritual mind. Spirituality is often seen as the highest point, but the most primtive humans were highly religious/spiritual being. It's probably the highest chimps' point, though.

May 13, 2019
Good to see the study. Research on meditation is desperately needed to understand stand it and improve its application. From the other comments there is a lot of partisanship and grand standing.

May 13, 2019
In a class of 50 people who exercised at least twice a week, at the beginning of a 3 year meditation training, a few experienced difficulty. Two were turning pale from leaning back, one was a doctor and had anxiety, one had a mind that could not focus. Most when asked, experienced various sensations. They were told to return to counting the interval of breathing in and out. Stretching and moving in positions prepared the person for meditation. I expect that is the reason for a lower unpleasant response. Medition is an increasing challenge. Some are buddhist mental and physical sutra, Hua Toh five animal live dead training, Ie Chin Ching part one and two, small circle and great circle of heaven, white crane, yin yang breathing, ten thousand lotus blossoming, scholar breathing meditation, san yi, hsing ie, hsin ie, bagua, tai chi, liu hsing all depend on meditation skill. If you research meditation you need teachers because they are the ones who have gone before.

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