Here’s what you need to know.
For most people, meditation is a safe practice that can bring many benefits to our wellbeing. And the internet is a plethora of resources to help people get started with the practice.
What we don’t see so often, though, are warnings that meditation is not for everyone. Or it might not be for some people at given periods of their lives.
For example, people with schizophrenia or who are experiencing psychosis should not meditate without medical supervision, if at all. If you have been diagnosed with a psychiatric or personality disorder, it is crucial to check with your doctor.
Additionally, meditation can sometimes trigger negative experiences, even in people with no history of mental illness.
There is no need to for alarm if you’re considering taking up the practice, as most of the population experience positive effects. But it is important to bear this in mind and proceed cautiously.
Following are some helpful guidelines for people at different stages of mental health.
For those suffering mild to moderate anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues:
There is plenty of evidence that meditation can help ease anxiety and depression. Yet, it is wise to consult your doctor before you decide to take it up.
Your doctor may suggest psychotherapy alongside meditation (or other self-care practices). If so, look for a therapist also certified in meditation or mindfulness instruction. Many therapists now offer this, and they can help you develop a practice that works best for you.
For those with good mental and emotional health:
Meditation helps us release stress held in our bodies. That can be physical, mental, or emotional stress. We may have been holding onto some of this stress for many years. The safest way to release it is gently and gradually — and daily practice can help us do this.
Opt for regular classes rather than an intense retreat to learn and settle into the practice. A silent retreat is not an appropriate experience for someone new to the practice. (More on that below.)
With regular meditation, most people notice an improvement in their moods, reduced anxiety, and greater resilience in the face of stressful situations. If you notice the opposite effects, it is best to stop the practice and seek medical help.
If traumatic memories resurface, it is important to address these with appropriate professional support, rather than ignoring them or attempting to re-suppress them.
For those suffering from a serious mental health condition or brain-related issue:
Consultation with your doctor is vital. In some cases, meditation is best avoided rather than practiced. That will depend on the nature of your illness.
A regular meditation practice can alter our consciousness. We can find ourselves moving into the “witnessing” state. This enables us to observe our own actions while we’re attending to our daily business. For most people, this is an interesting and positive experience. And it can help our personal growth.
But this is not the case for those who have an alternative experience of reality than those around them. Instead, this state can be unhelpful and add to the confusion.
You should also check with your doctor if you suffer from seizures or any brain-related condition.
The benefits of meditation are amplified when people meditate together in groups.
This is mostly a beneficial effect, but it’s important to be aware of it. If you’re going through a traumatic period or have significant past trauma you have yet to heal from, group meditations may intensify the release of your stress.
It’s not unusual, in large groups, to hear some people sobbing. And while that’s generally a good sign (something suppressed is being released), it can be an uncomfortable experience, especially in a public setting.
This is why you should be wary of intense retreats unless you’re a seasoned meditator. Avoid the temptation to take part in a ten-day silent retreat, despite the “life-changing” benefits you may have heard or read about.
Silent retreats are hardcore, even for experienced meditators. Usually, there are several group meditations daily — often long in periods. And you’ll have zero breaks from your own thoughts for the entire duration.
There’ll be no chats with the other retreat participants to distract you. With just our own thoughts to engage with over a prolonged period of time, we’re pretty much guaranteed that lots of stuff will come to the surface for examination.
And we need to be sure we’re resilient enough to deal with it and have the proper support in place to help us with that.
So don’t be in a rush to engage in an intense experience in the hopes of releasing all your baggage in one go. It’s far better to do a little every day and heal slowly and gently.
Even if you’re an experienced meditator, it’s still important to bear these safety guidelines in mind.
Like our physical health, our mental health can fluctuate. It’s important always to be mindful and respectful of that. A history of mental health issues is not a prerequisite to developing an illness.
Know what to look out for and how to deal with issues that arise, as we also learn to do with our physical health.
In summary — some general guidelines useful for all:
· Start with 20–30 minute sessions (or shorter). When you feel more confident processing any discomfort that arises, feel free to prolong your sits.
· Meditate once or twice per day, and no more. Even as you become more experienced, do not be tempted to meditate several times daily. The ideal times are early morning and early evening, but find a time that you can easily integrate into your daily routine.
· At the end of each meditation session, take a minute to ground yourself. This means bringing your full attention to your physical body in its physical setting. Even with five-minute sits, it’s important to complete with grounding.
· Avoid week-long or 10-day retreats while new to meditation.
· If you’re experiencing anxiety, depression, or another mental illness, check in with your doctor before starting. And choose a class that offers live interaction with a qualified instructor rather than a self-paced online course.
· Inform your teacher of all health issues.
· Inform your teacher of any uncomfortable experiences that arise during meditation.
· If you find yourself becoming obsessive about your practice — what you experience, how long, and how often you’re practicing — scale everything back to five minutes a day.
· If you know you have trauma, don’t turn to meditation as a means of avoiding therapy. Instead, look for a therapist who can also guide you in meditation if they deem it appropriate in your treatment.
· Pay attention to how you feel during and after meditation. Hopefully, you will have the common experience of increased well-being. If do you have any reason for concern, stop the practice and seek medical advice.
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