Ask anyone to name a few benefits of meditation and they’re sure to rattle off a laundry list of merits like improved concentration and focus, better sleep quality, better sex, lower stress, and greater overall happiness. Medical studies also praise the practice for its ability to help with high blood pressure, substance abuse, psoriasis, and as this study found, speed up the recovery process for cancer patients. 

However, well before meditation exploded in popularity during the mental health crisis brought on by the pandemic, before it became the second most popular health practice in the U.S. (second only to yoga), or even when it was first introduced to the United States in the 1960s by Swami Vivekananda, there have been cases of this wellness practice going awry. In 1915, an individual named Morita was the first record of psychotic symptoms being associated with meditation. Learn about meditation’s side effects on schizophrenia, how meditation can actually induce schizophrenia, and how dangerous the repercussions can be. 

Adverse Meditation Side Effects

Meditation is a technique used to practice mindfulness where through quiet concentration individuals strengthen the connection between their mind and body by tuning out the outside world. When you sit down and close your eyes to meditate, you probably expect to walk away with a sense of calm or inner peace feeling focused and rejuvenated, ready to tackle the rest of your day. For an unfortunate few, this is far from the case. 

Take a look at the r/meditation subreddit, for example, and you’ll find users who describe the adverse symptoms they experienced, ranging from temporarily troublesome to full psychotic breaks. 

Researchers have found that meditation can cause serious psychological side effects that cause a person to lose touch with reality such as:

  • Depersonalization
  • Derealization
  • Hallucinations and delusions
  • Mood disturbances

In the most severe cases, individuals may experience meditation-induced psychosis (which can involve multiple of the above symptoms), a psychotic break may lead to the development of a mental illness, such as schizophrenia. For those with a pre-existing history or family history with psychotic symptoms, there’s a very real risk that meditation will make those symptoms worse. However, these symptoms aren’t always permanent and sometimes go into complete remission. 

How Can Meditation Cause Mental Illness (or Make it Worse)?  

So how is it possible that the mindful act of sitting still, closing your eyes, and focusing on your breath can cause such drastic side effects? Scientists aren’t 100% just yet, but there are several neurobiological possibilities.

One reason might be the same as why meditation is so effective in the first place. MRIs and EEGs have proven that meditation can literally change the brain, both its physical structure as well as how it works. For most people, those changes are beneficial; increased gray matter, thicker hippocampus (for better memory), decreased amygdala volume (for better emotional regulation), and enhanced brain connectivity. This increased connectivity could cause neurons to become extra sensitive to real or perceived stimuli. For an individual who already suffers from mental illness, particularly of schizophrenia, the heightened perceptivity can be dangerous.

Another is that the increased levels of dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine that occur during meditation can incur the onset of psychotic symptoms. This is especially true of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in schizophrenia and is associated with hallucinations and other sensory misinterpretations.  

Is Meditation Dangerous?

The greatest danger of meditation-induced hallucinations, delusions, or full-on psychosis, is that the individual may harm themselves or others when they have difficulty distinguishing between what’s real, and what’s not. However, meditation itself is not harmful. 

Fortunately, in the vast majority of instances, meditation is not dangerous. Those who are vulnerable to developing meditation-induced psychosis or hallucinations, or already experience those symptoms, only make up a very small portion of the population. Further still, not everyone in that population is destined to experience adverse effects when they meditate. One study set out to find if meditation could be beneficial for schizophrenia patients, and 100% of their sample group saw improvements in their hallucinations and delusions after 3 weeks of meditation.

Although there’s plenty of science to prove how beneficial meditation can be, that’s not to say that meditation is for everybody. A shocking fact to most people, meditation can have negative side effects and it’s possible for this mindfulness practice to go very, very wrong. Those diagnosed with schizophrenia (or who have schizophrenia that runs in the family) face particular risks. If you have a family history of mental illness, it’s best to consult a mental health professional before engaging in meditation to ensure your safety and well-being.