"Are Meditation Apps Harmful?" considered harmful

Tricycle reports on this study in which nearly a thousand Americans reported on their “adverse” effects after using a meditation app.

The study is interesting and important and wildly under-theorized.

There’s an extraordinary amount of nuance in these meditators’ responses that every party—from the scientists to the apps to the journalists (to us!)—is incentivized to ignore. It is far too easy here to pick out one statistic to support your pre-drawn conclusion and so, of course, people do. And thus it is that the rich and complex experiences of trauma and recovery, pain and relaxation, distance and sensitivity which real people had and reflected on, gets turned into another click-bate headline. “Is Meditation Harmful?!?!” is harmful.

So, in this thread, I’d like to discuss that missing nuance and what we (as Buddhists and meditators) make of it.

I’ll start us off with a few questions I had about this particular study. Please feel free to add your own thoughts, links to other such studies, etc.

  • Is “emotional sensitivity” really an “adverse” effect?
  • While nearly half of the group reported an “adverse” experience, it didn’t make them any less glad they did it. Is that evidence that these “adverse effects” weren’t actually harmful?
  • What is actually being measured by studies like this?

From the Tricycle article:

This finding was included in “Prevalence of meditation-related adverse effects in a population-based sample in the United States,” which was published in June 2021. The study’s authors conducted what they believe to be the first population-based survey of the adverse effects of meditation (participants, it should be noted, practiced mindfulness, mantra, and spiritual meditation, not explicitly Buddhist meditation). Findings suggest that 10.6 percent of the nearly 1,000 people surveyed reported that they had “functional impairment” for a period of time (ranging from less than a day to more than a month). The most common adverse effects were anxiety, traumatic re-experiencing, and emotional sensitivity, according to the authors, who also found that people with childhood trauma were more likely to experience adverse effects.

“We saw some evidence that those who were first exposed to meditation through a smartphone app were more likely to experience impairment from meditation.

Goldberg said findings did not indicate that using apps in general were associated with adverse effects, just being first exposed by an app. He stressed that it was a small number of participants (17) first exposed via an app, but that the finding persisted when controlled for demographics. “I will feel more confident in this finding when someone else replicates it, ideally in a larger sample,” Goldberg added.

17 people! Good lord. Why is Tricycle even publishing this.
(Not to in any way diminish the suffering of the affected people. Just saying that it’s a small number compared to the “nearly 1000 people” surveyed.)

Goldberg, the lead author, said that he’s involved in two recent randomized control trials to test the Healthy Minds Program app in people with limited meditation background. “In both studies, we found that those assigned to the meditation app group were less likely to experience clinically significant increases in psychological distress. To me, these kinds of randomized trials are much stronger tests of the safety of meditation apps than cross-sectional studies,” Goldberg said.

This link is at the very bottom of the article, for those who are behind the paywall:

[Also, if you subscribe to their free RSS feed, there is no paywall]

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For the clicks, of course! :joy:

Well, the industry is growing (both the meditation industrial complex and the “meditation harm” cottage industry) which is why I think it worth thinking about.

Venerable Analayo has been publishing a number of articles lately in Mindfulness pushing back against this meme from an EBT perspective, but I think that may backfire as it comes across as dogmatic. “Well, of course your religious texts say your practices aren’t harmful!”

I’m interested in forwarding a more nuanced critique of the methodology here and particularly in questioning whether their conclusions follow from their data or not.

Future studies will happen with even larger sample sizes. How might they be structured to give more meaningful results than this?

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There are real harms associated with meditation. I had a meditation induced psychosis so can talk. There was nothing wrong with the meditation, but with my intention. Whenever I read these studies and articles it seems clear to me - someone thinks meditation is for feeling ‘better’, whatever that means. Some people actually need a very different intervention to feel better. For some people turning inward causes problems. They’re taking the wrong medicine.

Teachers and retreat leaders are already becoming more wise to people who actually need help that meditation cannot offer. But when people are practicing on their own there is nobody to offer then that perspective. If anything we need more honest information and discussion about what meditation is and isn’t suitable for. The problem is not the techniques or apps per se.

An app could have a short screening questionnaire, asking how many childhood adverse experiences the person has had, how many of the last 10 days they felt significantly anxious/sad/hopeless etc. That would already do a lot to raise awareness of risk factors and hopefully plant a seed that they may need to look for help elsewhere.


Yeah, exactly the kind of nuanced questions I’d love for future studies to actually ask:

  • what are the warning signs someone will have a bad experience?
  • when is “in person” instruction needed and when is an app ok?
  • when are other practices needed to prepare someone for meditation? What are those practices?
  • Which techniques are suitable for which kind of people?

I guess I’m just frustrated that these researchers have an opportunity to ask really interesting questions about meditation… and instead they ask the stupidest question: “Do people sometimes experience unpleasant things while meditating?” Really? That’s what you want to research?

Imagine a similar study about chemotherapy: “Is Chemotherapy Harmful?” Of course it is! It sucks! But that’s not the right question to ask, right? The question is, “When is it effective?” and “How do we minimize the pain?”


There is already so much wisdom and knowledge around this that spiritual teachers, psychotherapists and meditators with relevant experience can contribute (and learn from each other). It’s a real shame not more studies delve into that. It would be a lot more useful.