Can mindfulness be bad for you? One writer investigates

It’s the wellbeing buzzword touted as the cure-all for everything from stress to chronic pain, but could it be doing more harm than good? Anna Moore reports.

Miguel Gallardo

Louise, 34, turned to mindfulness because she felt frazzled and overwhelmed by modern life. A part-time family solicitor, she didn’t seem to have enough hours in the day to keep on top of work, be a hands-on mother to her two-year-old daughter and an attentive partner to her husband. ‘I was always rushing, planning, doing too many things at once – and none very well,’ says Louise. ‘Someone described mindfulness to me as a “quiet port in the storm”– a way of calming your mind, which was exactly what I needed.’ So Louise signed up for an eight-week course at a local community centre, at a cost of nearly £300. ‘The moment I walked in, my stress levels shot up,’ she recalls.

‘Everyone was super smiley, but that made me uncomfortable; it felt as though I’d stumbled into a cult! We sat in a semicircle, closed our eyes and paid close attention to our breathing and our bodies. Being told not to engage with your thoughts – to let them drift by – is a bit like being told not to think of the word “elephant”: from that moment, it’s all you can think about. My thoughts went into hyperactive mode: “I should have got new yoga pants and now I’ve missed the sales… Will Charlotte still be awake when I get home? Should I walk or get the bus? How long have we been sitting here?” By the end of the first session, I felt quite panicky. I’d wasted two hours surrounded by strangers, pretending to be engaged with my thoughts.’

If anything, Louise found that the pretence added to her stress. Although she completed the course, Louise never found that ‘port in the storm’. ‘We were meant to do 30 minutes’ homework every day,’ she says. ‘But finding half an hour where I could cut out my daughter, my husband, the house and the paperwork was an added stress. I’d sit my daughter in front of the TV, whack on Mr Tumble, then lock myself in the bathroom to focus on my breathing. My husband told me mindfulness was making me deranged! No wonderful clarity ever washed over me. It made me question if my head was more of a mess than I thought. Was I the only person on the planet who couldn’t be saved by mindfulness?’

Given the hype around mindfulness, it’s hardly surprising Louise felt alone in her ‘failure’. The practice of living in the now and paying special attention to the present moment, mindfulness is offered up by experts and celebrities as the ultimate stressbuster, a magical balm to soothe your soul, boost your health (mental and physical) and solve your problems. Countless A-listers – from Goldie Hawn to Gwyneth Paltrow, Oprah Winfrey to Angelina Jolie, Russell Brand to Ruby Wax – extol its virtues, and the claims made by followers are varied. Mindfulness has been promoted as a form of stress management, a way to train you to shake off distractions and see with clarity and focus. It is said to improve sleep and can even reduce symptoms of physical illness such as headaches by changing the way the mind perceives pain. In parliament, the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group is planning to make the UK a ‘mindful nation’, incorporating it into school curriculums, prisons, the workplace and healthcare, while mindfulness therapies are increasingly available on the NHS. Companies from Google to Goldman Sachs, Apple to Ikea have embraced mindfulness, with many routinely offering courses to employees.

For those who prefer to make the mindfulness journey alone, there are more than 1,000 apps, including the wildly popular Headspace (valued by Forbes at about £180 million), which offers guided meditation with a former Buddhist monk. When you’ve mastered meditation, you can move on to the many other forms of mindfulness now available. There’s mindful eating, mindful pregnancy, mindful birthing, mindful parenting, mindful colouring and mindful origami to get you started. Yet Louise is by no means the only person left cold (and £300 poorer) by her attempt at mindfulness. More worrying is the significant number who have suffered long-term damage. Dr Miguel Farias, a reader in cognitive and biological psychology and co-author of The Buddha Pill, has scrutinised the scientific research around mindfulness and found the claims made by its advocates to be dubious and, at times, dangerous.

‘Mindfulness was first developed to help people with chronic pain and stress problems,’ says Farias. ‘If you look at the robust studies – ones where there is a control group, a placebo, where the results were not written by the teachers of the course – mindfulness doesn’t seem to have more than a weak effect easing either chronic pain or stress. It might have a moderate effect for people with recurring depression. Is there anything special or good about mindfulness? Well, when you compare it with other forms of psychotherapy or physical exercise, the improvements are the same. Mindfulness performs no better than psychotherapy or jogging for 20 minutes every day.’

Approach the industry with caution, he warns. ‘The area is entirely unregulated and quite a lot of mindfulness teachers have no training whatsoever in mental health.’ As for the apps, Farias queries their usefulness. ‘Honestly speaking, they work like relaxation apps. Focusing on your breathing can usually make you relaxed – but for some it can also bring on a panic attack.’ There is a wealth of evidence to show that mindful exercises can have negative effects. While some people, such as Louise, find mindfulness unhelpful and dispiriting, for a significant number of others – and for reasons not yet completely understood – it can lead to anxiety, panic or even psychosis. Jane Reed, 53, a former yoga teacher and a married mother of two, created the information and support website Meditating in Safety after becoming extremely unwell on a five-day meditation retreat in the UK. She arrived in a stressed state – a result of the menopause, a recent bereavement, work problems – but became increasingly disturbed while there, her mind ‘racing’ and ‘fizzing’, unable to sleep and barely eating, which she links to the mindful exercises practised on the retreat.

‘My demeanour must have been strange but no one asked how I was. I think they chose not to say anything to me,’ she says. ‘I raised it with my teacher at the time but she was quite dismissive. That seems to be a common finding. The teachers often don’t have training or are not aware of this as a potential problem.’ By the time Jane returned home, she was hallucinating, paranoid, psychotic and manic. Two years on – and two courses of electric-convulsive therapy later – she has stabilised on medication, which she believes she’ll be taking for the rest of her life. Before the retreat, she had no history of mental-health problems.

Others who have left their story on the site include a 22-year-old graduate who experienced her first panic attack while on a mindfulness course, which was followed by depression. Similar stories can be found on numerous forums elsewhere. One example is a post on the popular parenting site Mumsnet: ‘I am struggling with both depression and anxiety at the moment, and in particular very intrusive and suicidal thoughts. One of the “tools” I have been recommended by various mental-health professionals is mindfulness. I did some group sessions while staying in a crisis house and am now going it alone using the Headspace app. However, I find it causes me to feel extremely anxious – not just racing thoughts but the physical symptoms as well, such as a pounding heart, shortness of breath and dizziness. Has anyone experienced this with mindfulness and does it get any better?’

‘There are enough studies to show that, for reasons we don’t understand completely, mindfulness can take some people in a negative direction and the effects can last years,’ says Farias. ‘Sometimes, it can be the re-emerging of traumatic memories that were completely forgotten, but it also happens to people with no previous mental-health problems.’ There are many who will claim that mindfulness has turned their life around. ‘I have a friend who works in a highly stressful career and took ten days out for a mindfulness retreat that really helped her,’ says Farias. ‘But what if she’d done something else? Taking ten days out to volunteer and help others – which would also have been a complete break from her life and increased her sense of connection to others – may have been just as powerful.’

André Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at City, University of London, tried mindfulness while investigating popular self-help remedies for his book Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement. ‘It worked fairly well for me in that it helps calm the mind and push aside distractions,’ he says. ‘I managed to produce a book in a month as it trains you to bring your attention back to whatever you’re focusing on. But it meant putting a lot of stuff to the back of my mind: friendships, personal relationships – everyone and everything else that makes up my life.’ For Spicer, this ‘individualism’ is part of a wider problem with mindfulness, something he set out in his book The Wellness Syndrome. ‘It’s a small solution to bigger problems,’ he says. ‘If you’re employed by a company that expects you to work in a mindless way, where you’re never allowed to switch off – moving between emails and constant interruptions and being on call when you get home – then offering you a mindfulness course isn’t going to fix that.

Instead of changing working practices, mindfulness is about looking internally and calming the mind while everything else stays the same.’ We’re building up mental strength to cope with our stressful lives when we should be working out how to change them. The Oxford professor Theodore Zeldin put it memorably at the Hay Festival in 2015, when he asked whether encouraging individuals to escape into a state of ‘blank mental oblivion’ is really something to celebrate. ‘I think mindfulness and meditation are bad for people,’ he told his audience. ‘It’s important not to just think about yourself. Life is about living; it’s about going out there and meeting people and hearing their thoughts and opinions.’

‘If mindfulness meditation is not for you but you’re interested in self-exploration or even help with anxiety or depression, you might want to try a good psychotherapist,’ suggests Farias. ‘For existential issues, I’d recommend good classical world literature; for peace and quiet, nature walks or gardening. Exercise is always good and if you want to grow your sense of connection to others, your empathy and compassion, then helping a neighbour, volunteering or getting involved in community action are great things to do.’ Alternatively, you could think about making bigger changes. ‘I’ve spoken to my boss about the need for an assistant at work and we’re also tweaking things at home – getting domestic help and more formal childcare,’ says Louise. ‘Life is still going to be chaotic, full on and a little bit mindless. But maybe that’s just life.’

Making Mindfulness Matter

By Jane Reed of Meditating in Safety.

  1. Do your research. Look up the organisation you’re intending to join and if you’re concerned about the mental-health element, check that they have a mental-health policy, which means they will have discussed their ideas and what to do if someone gets into trouble.
  2. Join a group. You can practise on your own at home but it’s important that you have someone to go to if you get into difficulties or are unsure.
  3.  Be honest with yourself. If you recognise that something doesn’t feel right or you notice that the practice is making you feel unwell – if you’re experiencing anxiety, panic or our mind is racing – seek help.
  4. Make sure you have a relaxed attitude towards the practice; the key is not to put pressure on yourself.

For more information, visit meditatinginsafety.org.uk