A Psychologist Explains 3 Reasons Why Mindfulness Might Be Making You Feel Worse
"But I feel worse after mindfulness," many a client have told me in hushed tones. Be it a 10-day silent retreat or a corporate wellness workshop, many report frustration or elevated levels of anxiety, even if they tell everyone they're feeling blissful. Because that's what everyone seems to be saying—that the ego has dissolved, and their head is at peace. And so that's what they feel compelled to echo.
A recently published systematic review of meditation studies reported that one in 12 people experience unwanted effects from the practice, from panic attacks to psychosis to thoughts of suicide. Similarly, the 2015 book The Buddha Pill, by psychologists Catherine Wikhom and Miguel Farias, covers similar cases, from having Messianic delusions to mania to uncontrolled body movements, and cites cautions by other key psychologists on the dark side of meditation.
That's not to say all mindfulness or meditation is all bad. What's clear is that this isn't a one-size-fits-all magic bullet. And that the common advice that it's normal and OK to feel these adverse effects "as mere stones on the road to peace or spiritual attainment" (as Wikhom and Farias write) is dangerous.
Why things go wrong.
Growing up, I was fascinated by the phenomenon 走火入魔 (zou huo ru mo) in sword-fighting flicks, when something went awry during spiritual or martial arts training causing the practitioner's entire personality to change. They'd go dark. My friend Lim Chee-Han, Ph.D., who's a medical anthropologist and longtime martial arts practitioner, tells me that zou huo ru mo is termed as qigong psychosis1, and special wards were once created in China to treat them.
Han tells me there may be some parallels between the psychological episodes known as zou huo ru mo and the adverse effects from spiritual practices that we see across different cultures, from St. John of the Cross's dark night of the soul to kundalini yoga to meditation.
The thing with any kind of meditation practice is that after some time, you're able to make distinctions between contrasting concepts and objects more clearly. As your thoughts become clearer, it's as if you've upgraded from low-resolution to high-resolution.
But zou huo ru mo can set in as you start to chase that clarity during your spiritual or mindfulness practice. This causes our chi to move in the wrong direction. In Chinese philosophy and medicine, chi refers to our life force or the flow of energy in our bodies. When we engage in any spiritual or martial arts practice, we are essentially moving chi through our body, and there is a right direction for it to move in, which leads to mental and physical vitality.
But sometimes we engage in a spiritual or physical practice that gets our chi moving the wrong way. Some sorts of mindfulness meditation, for instance, those that target areas where chi tends to gather, like the lower spine and hip, may increase risk of zou huo ru mo, because it is easy to stoke chi wrongly there. Also, when our thoughts wander, we're likelier to move chi in the wrong direction.
Are you incorporating mind and body?
Traditionally, Chinese spiritual and martial arts are rooted in practice, Lim tells me. And you have to involve both the mind and body concurrently in any form of practice.
But modern-day Western versions of mindfulness are rooted in Cartesian dualism that separates the mind and body2 and are watered down so people sit down feeling relaxed, and this is where it gets dangerous. When we sit down to do mindfulness meditation straight away, it's akin to setting a person who's feeling cold on fire, in order to warm them up.
Lim says that for someone with a very busy life, where their minds are thinking a lot but their bodies aren't moving as much, you have to start with movement-based energy work. "These movements must be so painful and difficult that your mind has no choice but to focus. The pain is essential to prevent you from zou huo ru mo," he adds, so your mind can't wander and your chi, therefore, moves correctly.
In essence, feeling the pain is really what being in the "here and now" of the present, that's often expounded in mindfulness, really means.
Importantly, Lim states that these arts are meant to be done under the close supervision of a trained master, who can help you navigate through any difficult experiences.
Over time, the mind and body become one. We are able to fulfill the intention of the spiritual arts—which is to place our intent (or energy) where we intended them to go. And this is when we can start sitting meditation.
So what does this mean for the 11 out of 12 people who don't report adverse effects? As some have disclosed, they were merely keeping them to themselves. And as for the others, Lim speculates that perhaps these people are better at placing their intent on particular parts of their bodies.
Are you breathing correctly?
I have witnessed firsthand the benefits of mindful breathing. Whenever we are anxious, our fear center hijacks our higher brains. Trauma also causes us to forget that then is not now because the timekeeper in our brain has gone a little awry. So we re-experience the past, often down to the sights, sounds, and smells. We each have our share of anxiety and trauma, so mindful breathing is one of the most important tools anyone should practice.
What I've realized, however, is that many of my clients who've been to mindfulness or meditation events, were actually breathing wrongly.
Here's why. When we're stressed or triggered, we often hold our breaths or suck in our tummies. Think also how we often tell each other to "Breathe in! Suck in your belly!" when we want a particularly flattering photo. Unsurprisingly, when we are told to breathe in consciously, we do the same. This leads to a feeling of tightness in our chests, which, when picked up by our brain, causes it to perceive that we are stressed out. It also triggers hyperventilation. It's little wonder we feel worse.
Now, amplify that by 7,200 times. Assuming one breath per second, for two hours of meditation. Of course our chests are heavy, and we're lightheaded.
From personal and professional experience, I've found that as little as three breaths are sufficient to reset our fear centers. As long as we are breathing correctly.
So regardless of how long you'd like to breathe for, let's start with the basics of breathing. When you breathe in, you fill your belly with air, inflating it like a balloon. And when you breathe out, you empty your body of air. When you do this correctly, all your attention is so focused on the passage of air that you do not have any mental bandwidth to think.
What's your mindfulness environment?
"I meditate for two hours every day. Do you?"
I hear these statements all the time. Or, "If you don't have time to meditate, then you need to take an hour to meditate."
In some circles, it's also become a competition as to who goes for the most and/or longest mindfulness retreats, as well as a shaming ritual for those who don't.
That really defeats the original point of mindfulness, a spiritual practice that when paired with ethics, is about becoming a better person.
Know that for some of us, even half an hour is adding way too much to our overstretched to-do lists already. Or perhaps some of us have shorter attention spans. Long mindfulness meditation sessions may not be a right fit with our personalities or where we are in life right now. That's OK.
Do your mindful breathing. Three breaths, when done correctly, is what my clients call a "resetting miracle."
Stanford behavioral psychologist B.J. Fogg has a dictum known as "floss one tooth," where the easiest way to get a person to floss all their teeth is to tell them to just floss one. They end up doing them all. The idea being, break a task down to something so stupidly easy you'll do it. Three breaths is the mental fitness equivalent of "floss one tooth."
And know that you have permission to stay far away from anyone who virtue signals or shames you.
The bottom line.
Any craft that you engage in for better health, spiritual growth, or discipline requires discernment. This means doing it correctly, down to mastering the fundamentals. In the case of mindfulness, it's about breathing correctly and incorporating mind and body. And, for any successful behavior change, we have to be equally mindful of our environment. In that light, be mindful of who you allow into your life and head space!
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.