Studies now link regular attempts to focus our minds and calm our bodies via breathing exercises, chanting, or other meditative techniques to a host of benefits—everything from decreased stress and blood pressure, to increased cognitive abilities, to fundamental shifts in the way we process the world. Last January, Time even ran a cover story on America’s meditative “Mindful Revolution.”
Yet this rush to validate, package, and promote meditation as a universal good may actually come with unforeseen risks. Although sitting and thinking may seem like an innocuous process, the fact remains that meditation is an altered state that we use as a tool to transform our bodies and minds. And like any tool, although intended for good things—like introspectively confronting our thoughts and feelings and coming to terms with troubling realities—it can wind up causing harm when set towards tasks that it just isn’t meant for (like acting as a quick-fix concentration booster or anesthesia for emotional strife). In the case of meditation, as the practice proliferates in the West, we’ve become increasingly aware that for some people, especially those with mental or personality conditions, mindfulness can trigger anxiety, depressive episodes, or flashbacks to past traumas.
This reminds me that progressive relaxation can paradoxically trigger panic attacks in some patients, which is a concern I mentioned in this post about the behavioral treatment of a phobia case.