At Positive Change Guru we’re sometimes asked whether mindfulness is harmful. It’s a sensible question and one which we’ll attempt to shed some light upon here.
Where’s the evidence?
A large number of studies have examined and documented the efficacy and impact of MBSR and MBCT programmes (Baer, 2003). It cannot be said that the same is true of mindfulness at work programmes. In the media, a plethora of articles from the Huffington Post to The Times (Glomb, Duffy, Bono and Yang 2012) have taken a well aimed shot at workplace mindfulness programmes, documenting the ‘gentrification’ of the Dharma (Eaton 2014) and the dangers of quick fix programmes claiming to furnish delegates with the same results that Kabat Zinn produced with vastly reduced timeframes and less skilled (usually poorly trained) practitioners heading up programmes (Singh, Lancioni et al 2008).
Alongside an obvious schism amongst practitioners (Zahn, 2016) this explosion of interest has exposed an uncomfortable truth, that we are not comparing like with like when the same claims are made about mindfulness at work as are made (and evidenced) for MBSR and MBCT. The subsequent flurry of damning articles and exposes culminating in the apex of derision from Ron Purser (2013) ‘McMindfulness’ defines what is sometimes seen as a commodification of the practice. It may then be true that some programmes offer nothing more than a feel good, overpriced box ticking exercise (Maccaro and Baggini 2015).
There is always a risk
The truth is that the jury is out for mindfulness per se regarding the risks associated with the practice. The Dark Night Project documents cases of meditation induced psychological issues. Sona Dimidian’s work published in American Psychologist, highlights how much of the existing data has examined the positive benefits of mediation and ignored the risks. Dimidian draws attention to current research questions focusing on marketable results “Does it promote good relationships?” “Does it help me work harder?” By stark contrast we have very little research examining adverse effects of MBCT, MBSR and workplace mindfulness. And of course, there’s always that sneaking suspicion that it’s a ploy on the part of machiavellian bosses who just want to wring more out of employees for less.
The analogy of exercise
As Oxford Mindfulness Centre point out, just like physical exercise, mindfulness presents benefits as well as risks. In the same way that it’s possible to pull a muscle, experience fatigue, become addicted to exercise or in extreme cases, suffer a heart attack it is also possible to suffer harm when practicing mindfulness. Research is currently being undertaken at Oxford University (and elsewhere) investigating the serious adverse effects of the practice. Data collection into the damaging impact of mindfulness remains in it’s infancy, but in the meantime, here’s what we tell clients who ask us, “Is mindfulness safe?”
Examples of people experiencing serious averse effects from mindfulness practice remain rare. Having said that, there are several things that you can do to minimize the chances of this happening whether in a workplace setting or MBCT/MBSR. These are our tips to limit potential risk.
Find a registered teacher.
Always look for teachers who are registered with the UK Network of Mindfulness-based Teachers. Mindfulness teachers should adhere to the UK Good Practice Guidelines and be registered on the list of qualified teachers. Your potential teacher should be happy to discuss this with you.
Screening. Check that there is screening before the course, to identify potential course participants who are vulnerable or for whom a mindfulness course may not be suitable at the present time. If you have identified personal vulnerability, research by William et al 2014 suggests MBCT may be effective for those with recurrent depression with the right conditions in place (mainly an experienced and qualified teacher). If in doubt, talk to your prospective teacher or ask your GP for advice.
Is the participant’s wellbeing paramount at all times? Does your teacher have a safeguarding procedures in place? Are they modeling compassionate behaviour towards course participants? Are they willing to help participants deal with unpleasant feelings when they arise? Do they have guidelines to signpost or refer participants to professional mental heath services?
Practices, for example, bringing awareness and attention to sights, sounds, tasting food, movement are considered low level intensity. Teacher led low intensity practices are currently believed to present less risk. Short work-place programmes focusing on these practices may potentially present less risk. Think of mindfulness practice like building blocks, we need to learn how to walk before we can run.
Mindfulness isn’t always about feeling good.
Practising mindfulness teaches us to recognise pleasant, unpleasant and neutral events. Depending on the level of intensity you will be working with various levels of difficulty. Mindfulness is about identifying and sitting with these thoughts and feelings.
It may not be for you.
Mindfulness is not the only way to enhance your wellbeing. There are many, evidence based, effective alternatives, for example, exercise or CBT. Find something that works for you and enjoy it.
Want to know more? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org we’d loved to hear from you!