Emotion Regulation

When Mindfulness Can Be Bad For You

Like many other desirable practices, mindfulness has its drawbacks.

Posted May 11, 2020

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Mindfulness is hugely popular these days. Once an esoteric topic only familiar to people with interests in Eastern spiritual traditions, today mindfulness is commonplace, with books, magazines, videos, podcasts, and training programs readily available for consumption.

However, the popularity of mindfulness may have outstripped the science. Media portrayals generally lead people to believe that the effects of practicing mindfulness are inevitably positive, and it is safe to say that people usually practice mindfulness because they think it will improve their lives. Unfortunately, research reveals that this is not always the case. Mindfulness can be bad for you.

Mindfulness is often considered to have two main components, awareness and acceptance. Awareness involves monitoring your experiences, and acceptance refers to monitoring those experiences with an attitude of non-judgmental openness, making no attempt to change or avoid anything that pops up in your mind. Implementing both components, by being a non-judgmental observer of experience, is necessary to derive benefits from mindfulness.

Two recent studies have found that just focusing on our experiences without the corresponding attitude of acceptance is associated with undesirable outcomes. The first study looked at the mindfulness profiles of university students. The researchers found that compared to students who had other profiles, the students who paid attention to their experiences but did so with a judgmental attitude—the “judgmentally observing” profile—had the poorest emotional outcomes, including the highest levels of depression, anxiety, and emotional instability.

The second study, which looked at both meditators and non-meditators, found similar results. Compared to people with other mindfulness profiles, those with the “judgmentally observing” profile suffered more depression, rumination, worry, and distress intolerance.

Evidence is accumulating that cultivating the awareness component of mindfulness without the associated acceptance component may lead to unwanted outcomes. This finding is consistent with other studies showing that the quality of self-focused attention is instrumental in determining whether it leads to well-being or distress.

Other research suggests that mindfulness can have adverse effects involving the development of new psychological problems or the intensification of existing ones. Although not all mindfulness practice involves formal meditation, there are a number of published examples of meditation leading to negative outcomes such as anxiety, depersonalization, and depression. One published report found that 25 percent of meditators experienced unwanted effects, most of which were transitory. Another study involving Buddhist meditation practitioners found that 73 percent experienced significant impairment as a result of their practice, but the authors noted that their results might not apply to more general mindfulness-based interventions.  

Studies have also shown that mindfulness can be associated with other negative outcomes such as reduced motivation, compromised implicit learning, and less willingness to accept responsibility for fixing wrongdoings.

Few activities in life are unmitigated goods. Consider how exercise can put you in a good mood and keep you physically healthy. But if you go for a jog when you have a broken ankle, or workout without giving your muscles and joints enough time to recover, exercise can lead to problems. Similarly, it seems that mindfulness can sometimes have some drawbacks.

Research has shown that in general mindfulness has numerous benefits such as enhancing positive emotions and lowering stress. For most people, most of the time, practicing mindfulness is an effective and healthy way to foster well-being. However, it is important to recognize that to achieve the benefits of mindfulness it must be practiced properly and carefully. Although more research is needed to clearly establish the conditions under which it is more or less beneficial, there is enough evidence to suggest that some caution is called for. Sometimes, in some ways, mindfulness can be bad for you.