The Mindful FAQ: Can Mindfulness Do More Harm Than Help?

If you feel that a particularly challenging feeling or memory is growing too big or intense to bear, the most mindful thing you can do is to choose intentionally to disengage, says clinical psychologist and mindfulness teacher Steve Hickman.

Illustration by Gwenda Kaczor
My mother read somewhere that mindfulness could be damaging because it can trigger uncontrollable emotional trauma. She’s worried that I may be doing a practice that could harm my mental health. What can I tell her to reassure her?

Your mother obviously loves you very much and doesn’t want you to suffer, but I think she may be a little overprotective in this case. There is some very interesting research out of Brown University done by Willoughby Britton and colleagues, which has sought to understand the range of experiences of meditators, including looking more closely at difficult, challenging, and sometimes disruptive experiences that meditators have had. This is a complex topic, but suffice it to say that the vast majority of these unfortunate experiences have occurred in people meditating over long periods, in multi-day silent meditation retreats, and we still know very little about what led to these incidents. Adverse events like this are exceedingly rare in the more common mindfulness-based programs widely available.

There is nothing to be gained from forcing yourself to meditate or “pushing through” difficult feelings. Think of it as a “melting” process rather than a “mining” one.