When you first think of meditation, you might envision deep relaxation and relief from stress. Or if you’re someone who’s struggled with the practice, you might think of achy muscles and racing thoughts as you aim to sit still and focus your attention inward. Either way, you probably know that meditation offers many proven benefits, such as easing anxiety and depression. But there are some potential pitfalls to meditation practice that you need to know about.
“I think the way you approach meditation is crucial, psychologist Dr. Courtney Conley tells SheKnows. “It takes time to learn to clear your mind and turn your focus inward for a sustained period of time. It’s a process, and you have to be patient with yourself as you practice and learn to close out the outer world and reconnect with yourself. If you don’t approach meditation as a skill that takes time to develop and fully benefit from, it can cause frustration. If you’re dealing with anxiety and not able to clear your mind and get into a meditative state, it may cause more frustration than it’s worth — the benefits can be lost when [meditation] causes frustration, which leads to negative self-talk.”
While cultivating a meditation practice is valuable for many people, there are a few things to be aware of before you get started — and some things to consider if you already meditate. Here are six pitfalls of meditation you should know about so you can make the most of your mindfulness practice without the drawbacks.
Thinking meditation is a cure-all or a quick fix
“One of the biggest pitfalls I see is that people assume meditation will fix all their problems,” licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Heather Stevenson tells SheKnows. “While meditation can be incredibly helpful for a variety of issues, like stress, anxiety, overwhelm, depression, etc., it is not a cure-all for everything. Meditation alone is not necessarily going to completely make your issues disappear, and people are often disappointed when, after trying it a few times, [they] find that nothing has changed.”
Meditation can be a powerful way to self-reflect, but as with any potentially therapeutic process, meditation is not about perfection. If you’re doing your best to sit quietly but your thoughts just won’t stop racing — don’t worry about it. Staying as present as you can with your process, no matter what that looks like on a given day, is enough.
Expecting instant results
Assuming you will feel dramatically better immediately is a common misconception about meditation when starting out, Stevenson says.
“I like to tell people that meditation is similar to starting a new medication; it takes some time to build up in your system first before you start to see some positive effects. So expecting it to work after only a few tries may leave you feeling like you’re doing it wrong and can lead people to giving up too quickly,” Stevenson explains. “But when practiced in combination with regular therapy, other self-care practices, exercise, good nutrition, etc., meditation can be an incredibly powerful tool in helping you not only feel better physically and emotionally, but also change the way you relate to the world and yourself.”
Using meditation to avoid your issues
Using meditation and other spiritual practices as a way to avoid emotions or issues that make you uncomfortable — whether they be yours or other people’s — is called spiritual bypassing. Ultimately, a sound meditation practice can provide an opportunity to examine your thoughts and internal processes while learning to be with yourself in a nonjudgmental way. And while this can lead to greater feelings of peace and resilience over time, using meditation to just feel good while suppressing emotions you consider “negative” isn’t the point. And suppressing emotions in general really isn’t the most helpful thing to do.
Not realizing there can be risks
“Deep breathing for relaxation is a good place to start for most people, but in people with asthma, it can stimulate asthma attacks,” Chicago therapist Dr. Aimee Daramus tells SheKnows. “If someone has both panic attacks and asthma, the two problems can feed into each other. If someone has asthma, they could use a type of meditation that doesn’t focus on breathing, such as guided imagery while breathing normally.”
Daramus says that with some mental health conditions, like schizophrenia, people may need to avoid visualization or guided imagery because it can make symptoms worse.
Additionally, side effects are possible for people with any level of experience with meditation, Daramus says. “For devoted, long-term practitioners, there is another set of risks,” she explains. “Meditating very deeply for hours or even days, like at a retreat, has been known to trigger depression, suicidal thoughts, dissociation (a sense of unreality) or even seizures. You also have to be careful of physical injuries from sitting for long periods of time.”
“It’s important to choose your type of meditation or relaxation thoughtfully based on your goals and your physical and mental health history — that will reduce a lot of potential risks associated with meditation. No style of meditation is a risk-free cure-all. People who promote meditation should treat it like any other health recommendation — meaning that there is an ethical obligation to educate people about risks as well as potential benefits,” Daramus says.
Not working with a therapist when needed
If you manage mental health issues, a meditation practice can be helpful — but you might still need the support of your therapist in addition to other treatment methods.
“One area where it may be difficult to introduce meditation early in treatment is when working with folks who have experienced trauma,” says Conley. “After trauma, people can experience intrusive thoughts and event replays. This is scary and anxiety-provoking. I’m not saying that meditation overall is inappropriate for this treatment population. However, I think it is important to deal with trauma symptoms, such as intrusive memories and thoughts, before a skill such as meditation can effectively be introduced.”
It’s important to note that some aspects of meditation can be triggering for some people, according to Stevenson. For example, someone who’s experienced trauma or is struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder may not feel comfortable closing their eyes and sitting quietly in a certain position, she says.
“This might remind them of their trauma or just trigger autonomic responses in the body to tense up and be alert,” Stevenson explains. “I think it’s so important for people to know that there does not have to be one specific way to practice meditation. You can practice with your eyes open or closed, sitting up, laying down or even walking outside. The most important thing to remember when it comes to meditation is that consistency is key. Consistently practicing, trying new things if it doesn’t feel like one way is working for you and getting support from a professional who can help answer any questions, [can help] guide you through it.”
No matter what type of meditation practice you choose, it’s safe to say the practice offers many potential benefits. Just make sure to consider your goals, which method is best for you and any mental health conditions you might be managing before you get started.
A version of this story was published February 2019.
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