PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Mindfulness-based meditation programs have emerged as a promising treatment for conditions ranging from stress to sleeplessness to depression. In some cases, they’re even offered to people — schoolkids or employees, for example — who aren’t actively seeking help or who haven’t been screened for suitability. Yet most research and discourse about these programs focuses only on their benefits, with little investigation of the risks or the potential for adverse effects.
A recent review of nearly 7,000 studies of meditation practices found that less than 1% of them measured adverse effects. Willoughby Britton, an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, said that this is largely because assessing adverse effects (a process known as “harms monitoring”) in non-pharmacological treatments like mindfulness-based meditation programs is difficult to do well.
To address that gap, Britton conducted a new study on adverse effects in mindfulness-based programs that identified common obstacles to harms monitoring and, importantly, showed how to address them. The study also found that the rates of adverse effects from mindfulness were similar to those found in other psychological treatments.
The study was published on May 18 in Clinical Psychological Science.
“Our ultimate goal is to maximize the efficacy of mindfulness-based meditation while minimizing harms,” said Britton, who directs the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at Brown. “In order to address risks and modify treatment accordingly, you need thorough and detailed knowledge about potential harms. Our study, the most comprehensive of its kind, provides a blueprint for how to accurately assess the risks of mindfulness-based meditation programs.”
Why no one wants to talk about meditation’s adverse effects
The adverse effects of mindfulness-based meditation programs are often an unpleasant topic for providers and participants alike, Britton said. For the study, she and her colleagues reviewed the most current harms monitoring best practices from regulatory agencies like the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In the paper, they outlined the key considerations around assessing adverse effects, including hesitancy of participants to report negative reactions to treatment because of feelings of shame or a desire to please the researcher or instructor.
Researchers and mindfulness teachers (Britton is both) are understandably more focused on the help they can provide than any harm they could cause. As a result, a lack of negative feedback from participants is often interpreted as evidence of absence of harm. “It’s very easy for our enthusiasm and desire to help to become a kind of blindness,” Britton explained.
Another complicating factor, she said, is the lack of knowledge of proper harms assessment.