Fascinating article on potential adverse consequences of meditation. References neuroscience as possible explanation.
Her clinical neuroscience research investigates the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and body in the treatment of mood disorders, trauma and other emotional disturbances. She is especially interested in practice-specific effects, and moderators of treatment outcome, or in other words “Which practices are best or worst suited for which types of people or conditions and why”. She recently completed “The Varieties of Contemplative Experience” study which investigates the full range of experiences that can arise in the context of contemplative practices, including experiences that could be considered difficult, challenging or adverse.
As a clinician, she has been trained as an instructor in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and has taught mindfulness to both clinical and non-clinical populations. She has also completed three years of training for treating trauma and destabilized nervous systems. She now specializes in helping meditators who are experiencing meditation-related difficulties, and providing meditation safety trainings to providers and organizations. [LINK]
She co-runs Cheetah House, which helps people experiencing psychological problems caused by meditation.
A snippet from the article:
Britton explained to me that it’s likely that my meditation practice, specifically the constant attention directed toward the sensations of the body, may have increased the activation and size of a part of the brain called the insula cortex.
“Activation of the insula cortex is related to systemic arousal,” she said. “If you keep amping up your body awareness, there is a point where it becomes too much and the body tries to limit excessive arousal by shutting down the limbic system. That’s why you have an oscillation between intense fear and dissociation.”
She suggested I try a trauma therapy called Somatic Experiencing and invited me to her support group for meditators who have experienced acute distress. Their stories were validating yet heartbreaking: a steady stream of individuals using meditation in a search for relief from suffering and instead finding greater anguish.
While some were veterans of numerous meditation retreats, others simply dabbled with a meditation application. One woman, a clinical mental health worker, ended up in a psychiatric facility after her doctor recommended she participate in a 10-day meditation retreat. Numerous participants developed problems after using Sam Harris’s popular Waking Up app.
One might wonder if these wounded meditators had preexisting conditions that triggered these experiences. Most of us don’t, a finding similar to Britton and Lindahl’s study, which reported that 57% of practitioners suffering adverse effects didn’t have a trauma history and 42% had no psychiatric issues at all prior to meditation practice.