The Hidden Complexities of Mindfulness Meditation


Mindfulness Meditation has astonishing advantages; however, it is also capable of uncovering past traumas and anxiety, which can be startling or frightening for some. Meanwhile, individuals who meditate daily generally train enough and are compensated with expanded empowerment over the brainwaves known as alpha rhythms. Consequently, the alpha brain prompts better concentration and may ease pain. In addition to calming the mind and body, meditation can also reduce the markers of stress in people with anxiety issues.

Health professionals conducted thorough examinations to persuade doctors, gurus, and psychotherapists to grasp mindfulness meditation potential. Conversely, meditators have consistently known that while the trend, hype, and publicity might be justified, the training and practice sessions are not always harmonious. Specifically, sitting in a trance state focused on the third eye, a person can experience incredibly uncomfortable emotions and unsettling physiological reactions.

Zen Buddhism and the Concept of “Makyo”

Zen Buddhism has a word for the distorted thought patterns that can emerge during meditation: “Makyo.” The word is composed of the Japanese words for demon and objective world. Moreover, an American late Zen master, Philip Kapleau, described Makyo as “a dredging and cleansing process that releases stressful experiences in deep layers of the mind.” According to Jared Lindahl, the demanding and troubling side of meditation is seldom referenced in analytical writing. Furthermore, Lindahl, who has a passion for neuroscience and Buddhism, is a visiting professor at Brown University. Together with Willoughby Britton, he co-authored a study that documents and classifies the phenomenology of meditation.

Exploring the Study on Meditation Phenomenology

In their study, Lindahl and Britton initially approached and interviewed 60 Western Buddhist mindfulness meditation practitioners who had experienced troubling incidents while meditating. Surprisingly, the participants included both beginners and trained educators, and interestingly, most of them had accumulated over 10,000 hours of meditation practice in their lives.

Findings: A Diverse Range of Challenges

The researchers identified 59 types of unexpected or undesirable experiences, which they organized into seven domains:

  • Cognitive: Confusion, obsessive thinking, intrusive memories
  • Perceptual: Visual distortions, hypersensitivity to sound and light
  • Emotional: Anxiety, panic, despair, depersonalization
  • Substantial: Nausea, dizziness, tremors
  • Conative: Loss of motivation, difficulty initiating activities
  • Self-Identity: Dissociation, loss of self, feelings of detachment
  • Social: Withdrawal from relationships, loss of empathy

The experiences reported included anxiety, insomnia, a sense of complete disconnection from emotions, hallucinations, nausea, and reliving past traumatic pain. Furthermore, according to the study, the levels of distress and impairment ranged from mild and transient to severe and long-lasting.

Understanding “Challenges” in Meditation

Nevertheless, the study participants did not perceive every non-euphoric event as unfavorable. Britton and Lindahl avoided strong negative terms in their study, opting instead for the word “challenging” to capture the varied interpretations of the meditators’ experiences.

Meditation’s Adverse Effects: Insights from Experts

Willoughby Britton, Ph.D., an associate professor at Brown University, concurs with the findings. In particular, mindfulness meditation’s adverse effects can include fear, panic, hallucinations, loss of motivation, memory issues, and depersonalization. Similarly, David A. Treleaven, Ph.D., author of the book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing, emphasizes that meditation’s potential to provoke challenging reactions should not be underestimated by instructors or professionals. Moreover, Treleaven states that “Meditation is a practice that can inspire challenging or adverse reactions. While many people benefit from meditation, some will not.”

Why Do Trauma Survivors Struggle with Meditation?

Although anyone can experience the negative effects of meditation, trauma survivors often feel particularly vulnerable. “The primary reason is that trauma survivors usually avoid distressing memories or emotions associated with the trauma, and meditation often involves leaning into our internal experiences, which includes difficult thoughts and sensations,” says Britton. Additionally, trauma can lead to feelings of shame that make self-compassion challenging to access.

Overcoming the Challenges of Meditation

Despite these challenges, individuals should not be discouraged from meditating altogether. A 10-minute guided meditation on an app may be suitable for some, while learning meditation and mindfulness skills with a guide or instructor may be more appropriate for others.

Trauma-Sensitive Approaches to Meditation

  1. Start Small: Begin with short, guided sessions to avoid overwhelming emotions.
  2. Seek Guidance: Consult trauma-sensitive meditation instructors for personalized support.
  3. Practice Self-Compassion: Cultivate kindness toward oneself during meditation.
  4. Avoid Comparisons: Focus on personal progress rather than comparing with others.

Further Research and Understanding Needed

More research is required to understand why some individuals are more susceptible to adverse effects than others. Researchers and psychologists should focus on developing solutions to mitigate the adverse effects.


In conclusion, meditation is a powerful tool for personal growth and healing, but it comes with challenges that must be understood and navigated carefully. While it can uncover past traumas and provoke distressing emotions, it can also offer a path to transformative healing when approached with sensitivity and awareness.


  1. Is meditation safe for everyone?
    Meditation is generally safe for most people. However, individuals with a history of trauma or mental health issues should consult a professional before starting a practice.

  2. How long should I meditate each day?
    Beginners can start with 5-10 minutes daily and gradually increase the duration as they become more comfortable.

  3. Can meditation help with anxiety?
    Yes, meditation can reduce anxiety symptoms for many people. However, it may initially provoke uncomfortable emotions that require guidance to navigate.

  4. What is the best type of meditation for beginners?
    Guided meditation or mindfulness meditation is often best for beginners due to the structured approach.

  5. Can meditation replace therapy?
    While meditation can be therapeutic, it should not replace professional mental health treatment when needed.