Today’s Unpopular Research Finding: Potential Perils of Mindfulness

Mindfulness has a great reputation.

Students and teachers can start meditation programs quite easily. And, we’ve heard about its myriad benefits: reduced stress, greater concentration, enhanced classroom cooperation.

If we can fix so many school problems for (essentially) no money, what’s not to love?

Today’s Headline: “Particularly Unpleasant” Experiences

We’ve heard about all the good things that mindfulness can produce. Does it lead to any bad things?

Several researchers in Europe wanted to know if it led to “particularly unpleasant” experiences: “anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, altered sense of self or the world.”

In particular, they asked if these experiences occurred during or after meditating.

They surveyed 1200+ people who had practiced meditation for at least two months. (The average experience meditating was, in fact, six years.)

Amazingly, more than 300 of them — 25% — reported a “particularly unpleasant” experience.

And, their findings are in line with two earlier studies (here and here), which reported 25% and 32% of meditators had such experiences.

The rate was lower for religious meditators, and slightly higher for men than women. The kind of meditation mattered somewhat. And (surprisingly for me), the rate was higher among those who had attended meditation retreats.

Lots of other variables didn’t matter: for instance, years of meditation experience, or length of meditation session.

Classroom Implications: Don’ts, and Do’s

Don’t Panic. If you’re currently running a mindfulness program, you don’t need to abandon ship.

Keep in mind:

This study asked respondants one question. We can’t draw extravagant conclusions from just one question.

The study focused on adults, not K-12 students.

We can’t draw causal links. That is: we don’t know, based on this study design, if the meditation led to the “particularly unpleasant” experience. We don’t even know what that rate would be for people in a control group.

We’re still VERY EARLY in exploring this question. We’ve now got 3 studies pointing this direction. But, we need more research — and more consistent ways of investigating this link — to know what to make of it.


First: Use this research to improve the mindfulness program you have, or the one you’re planning.

That is: If you’ve got such a program, or have one under consideration, ask yourself, do you see signs that your students have unpleasant experiences?

Are you giving them permission and opportunity to say so?

Do the people running the mindfulness session know what to do if they get that kind of response?

After all, this research team isn’t asking schools and teachers to stop meditating. Like good scientists, they’re looking at both potential benefits and potential detriments.

Second: More generally, let this research be a healthy reminder. Almost all school changes lead to both good and bad results.

While mindfulness breaks might have lots of benefits, they might well have some downsides. So too with everything else.

We should always ask about the downsides.

When doesn’t retrieval practice help? Being outside might help some students learn something, but could it hamper others trying to learn other things?

When we actively seek out both the good and bad in the research-based practices we adopt, we’re likelier to use them more thoughtfully and effectively.

tags: / category: L&B Blog

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