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The Limits of Mindfulness

For the greatest benefit understand the risks clearly.

Key points

  • Mindfulness has potential downsides that are often ignored.
  • For some people, mindfulness practices could increase the stress response, negative emotions, dissociation, and even inhibit sleep.
  • As with any intervention, before we recommend mindfulness we must understand its potential risks.

In recent years, the topic of mindfulness has proliferated widely in the world of psychology and self-help. This is for good reason; the skills of mindfulness can be helpful for a range of personal difficulties and to help with overall well-being. Personally, I practice meditation daily and try to bring nonjudgmental present-focused awareness—as mindfulness was famously defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2013)—into my daily life as often as I can. It has definitely made a positive difference in my life, and the lives of many fellow clinicians, clients, friends, and family.

Nonetheless, we make a grave error if we assume that mindfulness can only be beneficial. Even when mindfulness is used and taught appropriately, there are downsides that need to be discussed. A recent article entitled “Can mindfulness be too much of a good thing? The value of a middle way” (Britton, 2019) describes several important and potentially unwanted effects of mindfulness.

Kelvin Valerio/Pexels
Source: Kelvin Valerio/Pexels

Mindful attention involves focusing one’s awareness on the experience of the present moment. Anyone who has studied mindfulness has likely encountered an array of practices designed to learn this skill, from focusing on the breath to observing one’s own thoughts. In all likelihood, this practice was also probably taught as though it couldn’t possibly have a downside or be damaging. Britton (2019), however, points to several. In reviewing the literature, she reports how increasing self-focused attention can lead to psychiatric symptoms and negative emotions. She also notes that increased bodily awareness, such as you might experience while “watching the breath,” may increase the intensity of your emotions or even elicit increased sympathetic arousal (aka, the stress response).

The ability to observe one’s emotions is also touted as a major benefit of mindfulness, and for many of us, this is indeed true. Yet can it go too far? Can we become too distanced from our experience? Indeed we can. Britton (2019) reviews multiple studies showing connections between meditation training and blunted emotionality and even dissociation for some participants.

Sometimes mindfulness practices are taught to help us overcome avoidance, as a way of “being with” that which is difficult. Again, much of the time this can offer great benefit. However, the reality is that some people don’t struggle as much with avoidance but instead become preoccupied with their troubles. For such individuals, the instruction to stay with a challenging experience may not be beneficial and could even be counterproductive.

There tends to be a “more is better” attitude among mindfulness practitioners, where the answer to whatever ails you can easily become “practice more mindfulness.” Britton (2019) reminds us of the importance of paying attention to the duration of practice and where there might be diminishing returns or even harmful effects. For instance, she reviews research suggesting that meditation may help sleep only up to a certain amount, after which it may actually make sleep more difficult.

Taken together, Britton’s (2019) review article provides an important reminder that we must not dispense with critical thinking when practicing mindfulness or researching its effects. In my own clinical work, and my work training students who want to use mindfulness personally and in their psychotherapy practice, I now integrate this knowledge into my introductory lessons. It is only when we have a more complete view of mindfulness—the good, bad, and perhaps ugly—that we can also be more confident in when and how to practice, teach, or recommend it.

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Britton, W. (2019). Can mindfulness be too much of a good thing? The value of a middle way. Current Opinion in Psychology, 28, 159-165.

Kabat-Zinn J (2013). Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New York: Bantam Dell.