The Little-Known Downsides of Mindfulness Practice

Some potentially serious pitfalls

Posted Apr 27, 2016

As I pointed out recently, mindfulness practice has entered the mainstream of western culture to such an extent that 2014 was proclaimed as “The Year of Mindfulness” by the New Republic, and futurists see “mindful living” as a top trend that will influence consumers in the years to come.

banho de chuva by Gustavo Perez Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: banho de chuva by Gustavo Perez Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

Most readers may know this already, but here’s a quick refresher. Mindfulness practice refers to a set of activities and exercises that concentrate an individual’s mind on experiencing the present moment and excluding the stream of diverse thoughts and mind-wandering that happens normally. Mindfulness practice usually involves some form of meditation, with or without a spiritual locus. Its goal is to create and maintain a nonjudgmental and nonreactive state of awareness.

To capture and keep one’s concentration in the present, the practitioner continuously focuses on a single concept for a period of time ranging from a few minutes to hours. During the practice, he may pay attention to his own breathing, counting breaths, monitoring and regulating each cycle of inhalation and exhalation. Alternatively, she may listen to a soothing, mellifluous sound or recite a chant, over and over, maintaining complete attention on the chosen stimulus, and bringing it back each time it drifts.

Research about the benefits of mindfulness practice has grown in tandem with its popularity in the mainstream culture. Thousands of studies, most of them conducted over the past decade, have associated the practice of mindfulness with a variety of substantial health benefits. Through this research, mindfulness practice is credited with numerous forms of psychological and physiological benefits, including long-term reductions in anxiety and depression, pain reduction, anger management, curbing addictions, and emotional well-being.

But as I pointed out in my recent blog post, these benefits don’t seem to have translated into society-level benefits. On the contrary, data about various social phenomena consistently indicate that on the whole, we are behaving more mindlessly (and often with serious negative consequences) than we used to.

I want to continue critiquing the unalloyed positive spin employed in most discussions of mindfulness practice. In this blog post, I want to focus on emerging academic research that points to potentially negative consequences of practicing mindfulness. I want to mention one important caveat first: I personally value and occasionally try to practice mindfulness myself. Nevertheless, I do feel that the scholarly and popular media discussions of mindfulness tend to be far too unbalanced. Negative findings in research studies and potential detriments of mindfulness are often swept under the rug.

So let’s shine the spotlight on these findings here, so as to have a balanced understanding of the pros and cons of practicing mindfulness.

Forming False Memories

In one recent study published in Psychological Science, the author team led by psychologist Brent Wilson found that after just one 15-minute mindfulness induction involving a guided breathing exercise, participants were more likely to form false memories compared to control participants who engaged in mind-wandering. The authors concluded that:

Memories by Prothima Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Memories by Prothima Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

“When meditators embrace judgment-free awareness and acceptance, their reality-monitoring accuracy may be impaired, increasing their susceptibility to false memories.”

They called the formation of fake memories “a potential unintended consequence of mindfulness meditation in which memories become less reliable.” While the studies in the journal article were limited to rather innocuous tasks, we can only imagine the grim possibility of regular mindfulness practitioners forming entirely fictitious realities (and even past histories) for themselves which they then carry into the future, doing god knows what harm to themselves and others.

Discarding Positive Thoughts

Many variations of mindfulness practice involve putting down mental baggage by separating ourselves from our thoughts, and then discarding thoughts that are seen as negative or harmful. But what if the same thing is done for positive thoughts? In another Psychological Science paper, an author team led by Pablo Briñol found that when participants physically discarded a representation of their thoughts such as by writing them down on a piece of paper and then tossing it in the trash, they tended to use them less in their decision making afterwards, mentally discarding them as well. Relevant to us, the authors found that positive thoughts also seemed to be discarded mentally just like negative ones. In their paper, the authors cautioned:

“This finding suggests that techniques involved in some mindfulness treatments can backfire—at least for some people and for some situations, particularly those in which positive thoughts are present.”

Much as we would like to see the world and our thoughts and memories in black-and-white terms and selectively discard negative thoughts whilst keeping positive ones, such a thing is very hard to do. As we try to cull our negative baggage and get rid of it with mindfulness practice, we may find we have left behind some precious and strengthening baggage with it.

Avoiding Difficult Thinking Activities

By its definition and based on its Buddhist and Vedantic origins, the practice of mindfulness encourages detachment. A core aspect of practicing mindfulness is to attempt a withdrawal from the streams of thought that have to do with current challenges of every form, whether they have to do with difficulties with a particular relationship or the tasks that one has to perform on that day. Unfortunately, such a withdrawal supports our natural, hard-wired tendency to be “cognitive misers” leading mindfulness practitioners to use the practice as a means of escape from having to think about difficult problems and arrive at reasonable solutions. Psychiatrist David Brendel summarizes this danger of mindfulness practice as follows:

“Some people use mindfulness strategies to avoid critical thinking tasks. I’ve worked with clients who, instead of rationally thinking through a career challenge or ethical dilemma, prefer to disconnect from their challenges and retreat into a meditative mindset.”

Adverse Side Effects

In a 2009 paper in Advances in Mind-Body medicine, the author team led by psychologist Kathleen Lustyk provided an in-depth (and to me, astonishing) review of mindfulness practice studies that reported adverse side effects to participants. There is a whole laundry list of psychological and physical effects in the paper.

Depression. by Mary Locke Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Depression. by Mary Locke Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

These included reports of depersonalization (feeling detached from one’s mental processes or body), psychosis (loss of contact with reality) with delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech, feelings of anxiety, an increased risk of seizures, loss of appetite, and insomnia. The authors especially cautioned vulnerable people such as those with PTSD to be particularly careful when undertaking mindfulness practice. Their main point was that participants should be screened carefully for their suitability before undertaking this practice, and its teachers should be properly trained and supervised.

While the paper focused on best practices in conducting mindfulness research, I feel that their advice applies to any of us wanting to practice mindfulness regularly. As psychologists Miguel Farias and Catherine Wilkolm point out:

“Buddhist meditation was designed not to make us happier, but to radically change our sense of self and perception of the world. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that some will experience negative effects such as dissociation, anxiety and depression. However, like the small print on medication, these “side-effects” in some individuals are not what the creators of this pill are concerned with promoting.” Other experts have come to similar conclusions.

Does all of this mean I am going to abandon my own interest in mindfulness? Of course not! But it does mean that I am going to adopt a more skeptical stance and pay attention to both positive and negative outcomes of mindfulness practice.

I teach marketing and pricing to MBA students at Rice University. You can find more information about me on my website or follow me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter @ud.