It’s best to begin meditating during a period of relative stability. If one is depressed and contemplating suicide, a new meditation practice will not help at all. If a terribly depressed person sits with those thoughts, things are only likely to get worse. After establishing a strong practice, the same focus at the same time may help a person release such thoughts and be well. But not as a beginner.
Anxiety is a similar situation. The beauty in using meditation to manage anxiety is the revelation of self-defeating thoughts. As I stated before, we’ve all thought, I’m so anxious I could die! Meditating on this reveals that you don’t die. Thoughts fuel the anxiety, and if you can see the thoughts as erroneous and let them go the anxiety inflamed by them will pass, too. But not until you’ve practiced long enough to face and release thoughts with confidence. As a beginner, the rumination will only further convince you that, yes, the anxiety will kill you.
Most studies that prove the beneficial effects of meditation have their subjects meditate for 20 minutes a day for four to eight weeks before lasting positive results are established. (Of course, you have to keep practicing for the positive effects to remain.) It takes about that long to learn how to successfully sit and notice the changes in and around you. It takes about that long to learn how to release thoughts that don’t make sense. It takes a bit longer to predict episodes by noting signals in your body, emotions and mind. If you haven’t put in a few weeks of practice when you’re well, don’t meditate when things are too challenging to endure. Call a hotline or reach out to a loved one or doctor instead.
Today many teachers with little depth of understanding of the challenges meditators can face are leading students into practices that, while often very positive and relaxing, can lead a troubled mind into very dangerous places. Just as a poorly trained yoga teacher can push a student to physical injury, an insensitive meditation teacher can introduce practices that add dangerous rumination to the challenges one may face. This can be especially damaging to people with serious mental illness.
Even expert, world-famous teachers have students who have come apart, some requiring hospitalization. Recent research published in PLOS One indicates that 25% of people who have meditated for at least two months have reported a particularly unpleasant psychological experience, such as anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, or an altered sense of self or the world while meditating. Meditators who have practiced for years, or long periods of time during each sitting, had an even higher occurrence of challenging experiences.
Those most at risk include those who suffer from high levels of repetitive negative thinking, as do many with serious mental illness. This is not to say that meditation cannot benefit those with serious mental illness. It saved my life from the ruin of bipolar disorder. It just needs to be entered into carefully, and with support.
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