Enlightening: Meditation May Trigger Unpleasant Experiences

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For some people, meditation may trigger experiences that are unpleasant or even distressing, according to a new study.

For example, some people may become hypersensitive to light or sound during or after they meditate, the researchers found. Others may experience fear, anxiety or panic related to meditation, they found.

"Many effects of meditation are well-known, like increased awareness of thoughts and emotions, or improved calm and well-being," lead study author Jared Lindahl, visiting assistant professor of the humanities at Brown University in Rhode Island, said in a statement. "But there is a much broader range of possible experiences." [Mind Games: 7 Reasons You Should Meditate]

Many factors affect "exactly what those experiences are, how they affect individuals and which ones show up as difficult," Lindahl said.

In the study, the researchers wanted to identify meditation experiences that could be seen as challenging to cope with, as such experiences had been underrepresented in the scientific literature. The scientists interviewed nearly 100 people — a group that included regular people who meditate as well as some people who teach meditation — about their experiences during and after meditation. Based on the results, the researchers identified 59 different experiences associated with meditation.

While some of these experiences, such as feelings of unity with others, were seen as desirable by some study participants, others interpreted them as disorienting, the researchers found.

Some of the potentially challenging experiences reported by the participants involved sensory changes. For example, some of the people said that meditation made them hypersensitive to light or sound. Others reported experiencing involuntary movements, insomnia, dizziness or headaches associated with meditation. Some participants reported emotional experiences such as feeling fearful, anxious, panicky or emotionless because of meditation.

"I think for us the really surprising thing was just the sheer number and diversity of things that we found," Lindahl told Live Science.

There were also people who had experiences that they interpreted as positive when they happened during meditation retreats, but that persisted once the people had left the retreat and that therefore interfered with their functioning or work. This shows that "an experience that is positive and desirable in one situation may become a burden in another," Lindahl said. [10 Things You Didn't Know About the Brain]

The new results show that meditation does not trigger only positive experiences, and that people experience meditation-related phenomena that can be distressing, the researchers said.

"The purpose of our study is to help and to reach and support those people who  currently feel somewhat marginalized by the dominant positive discussions about meditation and dominant narratives around what meditation is thought to do," Lindahl said.

More research is needed to examine the neurobiological mechanisms behind such experiences, study co-author Willoughby Britton, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University, said in a statement.

The study was published May 24 in the journal PLOS ONE.

Originally published on Live Science.

Staff Writer