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Brown neuroscience lab devises novel guidelines to measure, study negative effects of mindfulness-based meditation

Study found over 50 percent of participants to have experienced adverse effects from clinical mindfulness-based programs

Though mindfulness programs offer promising treatment paths for many, tools for researchers to examine their potential pitfalls have remained underdeveloped, according to Willoughby Britton, director of the University’s Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory.

In order to better understand the physical and psychological effects Mindfulness-Based Programs have on participants, researchers from the lab have developed a set of guidelines to categorize and measure adverse side effects experienced by MBP participants. Using these guidelines, the researchers found that more than half of participants enrolled in MBPs experienced adverse effects from meditation, with six to 14 percent experiencing lasting negative effects.

Although previous studies have found MBPs to be a “promising treatment” for patients with a range of conditions including depression, stress and anxiety, research on the potential adverse effects of these programs remains “inadequate and inconsistent,” the study’s authors wrote

“People aren’t measuring adverse effects because first of all, they’ve never heard of them, and secondly, they don’t know how to measure them properly,” said Britton, lead author of the study. 

The study outlines a set of 24 guidelines, titled Harms Monitoring Recommendations, that are based on a previous project from Britton’s lab for which the researchers spent 10 years interviewing traditional Buddhist meditation instructors about difficulties they experienced or witnessed their students experiencing while meditating. 

“What I learned is (that) harms monitoring is a science in and of itself,” Britton said. “One of the biggest fallacies is that if someone is having a problem during their meditation practice, they’ll tell you.” For reasons such as the power differential between student and teacher and the idea that suffering unwanted effects is part of the process, many negative experiences go unreported, she said. “You have to measure (symptoms) actively and specifically,” she added.

The Harms Monitoring Recommendations were created for researchers to reference when interviewing meditators about their adverse experiences, Britton said. They tell researchers what to ask about — for example, the type of negative symptom, its duration and expectedness — and how to ask, such as when to use open-ended versus specific questions. 

Britton’s team used these guidelines in the study to measure adverse effects in participants of three variations of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, all of which employed mindfulness-based meditation as a treatment for anxiety, stress and depression. In the study, interviewees were asked to describe their symptoms, as well as whether they affected them negatively or positively in the long and short run. 

They found that 58 percent of participants who were interviewed experienced some form of adverse effects, with six to 14 percent of them experiencing these effects over the long term.

Roman Palitsky, a postdoctoral research fellow in Britton’s lab, wrote in an email to The Herald that although these results “seem surprising because so many people had some kind of unintended response,” they “are largely consistent” with the rates of adverse effects other studies have found in participants in mindfulness therapies.  

Matthew Hirschberg, a postdoctoral research associate at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who has also conducted research on the adverse effects of meditation said he believes that these new “nuanced” guidelines will “help identify different domains of negative experiences that people have,” and will “help move the field forward.” 

But he added that “assessing the types of negative experiences that people have when they’re meditating is not the same as establishing a causal link (between meditation and negative symptoms),” citing his own research which showed that although a small percent of MBP participants experienced an increase in negative symptoms, this increase was significantly less than that of the control group.

Outside of her research, Britton runs the Cheetah House, a non-profit organization that supports individuals who have experienced meditation-related difficulties ranging from perceptual hyper-sensitivity to changes in sleep patterns. 

There, she has noticed that adverse effects often occur when “people stop listening to their own inner compass … somewhere along the lines, their goals change or they forget about what their goals were'' in practicing meditation. For example, an individual who started meditating to calm their anxiety might start to experience emotional numbness after “overtraining” areas of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system, she said. 

“A lot of people that come to Cheetah House feel very betrayed that no one told them this could happen,” Britton said. She hopes that her research will “raise general public awareness that meditation isn’t 100 percent benign and (that) there are risks. People feel a lot more empowered when they’re informed,” she added.

The researchers hope that this study will lead to further research on the subject and a deeper understanding of meditation-related adverse effects. 

“I hope that (this study) leads to monitoring and safety becoming mainstream practices” and the development of safeguarding practices for people who use these interventions, Palitsky wrote. 


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