Side Effects Of Meditation and mindfulness

Mindfulness as a psychological aid is very much in fashion. Recent reports on the latest finding suggested that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is as effective as anti-depressants in preventing the relapse of recurrent depression.

While the authors of the paper interpreted their results in a slightly less positive light, stating that (contrary to their hypothesis) mindfulness was no more effective than medication, the meaning inferred by many in the media was that mindfulness was superior to medication.

Mindfulness is a technique extracted from Buddhism where one tries to notice present thoughts, feeling and sensations without judgement. The aim is to create a state of “bare awareness”. What was once a tool for spiritual exploration has been turned into a panacea for the modern age — a cure-all for common human problems, from stress, to anxiety, to depression. By taking this “natural pill” every day, we open ourselves up to the potential for myriad benefits and no ill-effects, unlike synthetic pills, such as anti-depressants, whose potential for negative side-effects we are all aware of.

We don’t know how it works

Mindfulness has been sold to us and we are buying it. After all, thousands of studies suggest that it produces various kinds of measurable psycho-biological effects. However, despite what is commonly propagated, the idea that science has unequivocally shown how meditation can change us is a myth. After examining the literature from the last 45 years on the science of meditation, we realised with astonishment that we are no closer to finding out how meditation works or who benefits the most or the least from it.

The few available meta-analyses report moderate evidence that meditation affects us in various ways, such as reducing anxiety and increasing positive emotions. However, it is less clear how powerful and long-lasting these changes are — does it work better than physical relaxation for example? Or than a placebo? The evidence on this is contradictory and inconclusive.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is an eight-week group therapy programme blending cognitive education with mindfulness techniques. It was designed specifically as a treatment to help prevent individuals who have experienced recurrent depression from further relapse. As well as weekly group sessions, participants are encouraged to engage in daily mindfulness meditation at home throughout the course. This mindfulness therapy is growing in popularity, with recent calls for it to be more widely available on the NHS.

Yet we still can’t be sure what the active ingredient is. Is it the meditation itself that causes the positive effects, or is it more to do with learning to step back and become aware of our thoughts and feelings in a supportive group environment? And why does it only work for some? CLICK TO CONTINUE READING