A magazine for friends of the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

In Meditation, First Do No Harm


A study shows the importance of defining and measuring the adverse effects of mindfulness.

Mindfulness-based meditation programs have emerged as a promising treatment for conditions ranging from stress to sleeplessness to depression. In some cases, they’re even offered to people—schoolkids or employees, for example—who aren’t actively seeking help or who haven’t been screened for suitability. Yet most research and discourse about these programs focuses only on their benefits, with little investigation of the risks or the potential for adverse effects.

A recent review of nearly 7,000 studies of meditation practices found that less than 1 percent of them measured adverse effects. Willoughby Britton F’10, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior, says this is largely because assessing adverse effects (a process known as “harms monitoring”) in non-pharmacological treatments like mindfulness-based meditation programs is difficult to do well.

To address that gap, Britton conducted a new study on adverse effects in mindfulness-based programs that identified common obstacles to harms monitoring and, importantly, showed how to address them. The study also found that the rates of adverse effects from mindfulness were similar to those found in other psychological treatments.

The study was published May 18 in Clinical Psychological Science.

“Our ultimate goal is to maximize the efficacy of mindfulness-based meditation while minimizing harms,” says Britton, who directs the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at Brown. “In order to address risks and modify treatment accordingly, you need thorough and detailed knowledge about potential harms. Our study, the most comprehensive of its kind, provides a blueprint for how to accurately assess the risks of mindfulness-based meditation programs.”

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