The dark side of mindfulness: It’s supposed to be calming. But there’s growing evidence the fashionable therapy can be harmful

Maddy Le Bourdon, 27, has suffered with anxiety and eating disorders since 13 

18 months ago, she tried new type of psychotherapy on basis of her GP’s advice

Leading psychologists warn may exacerbate or trigger serious illness in some

By EVE SIMMONS FOR THE DAILY MAIIL

PUBLISHED: 17:03 EST, 8 December 2018 | UPDATED: 20:07 EST, 8 December 2018

Since the age of 13, crippling anxiety has derailed mealtimes for long-term eating disorder sufferer, Maddy Le Bourdon. Now 27, her condition is something she has had medical treatment for, on and off, for more than a decade.

But 18 months ago, she put her faith in the promise of a relatively new type of psychotherapy: mindfulness. Following her GP’s advice, she downloaded a smartphone app called Headspace, for a ten-minute, daily audio session.

A soothing voice instructed her to focus on her breathing and let noisy thoughts float by without judgment, as if they were passing traffic. But for Maddy, far from leaving her calmer and less worried, it evoked a disturbing reaction.

‘I began obsessing over mybloated stomach and the food I’d eaten. For the first time ever, I felt theneed to purge,’ she recalls.

Maddy Le Bourdon, 27, had trouble doing mindfulness, finding that it makes her anxious thoughts much worse

Maddy later tried mindful walking, a mindfulness method in which participants focus on the environment and bodily sensations as they walk. ‘I was suddenly overcome with the urge to run,’ she recalls. ‘I ran for miles to silence the nervous thoughts swimming around my head. My anxiety was heightened for weeks.’

Mindfulness – a type of psychotherapy based on meditation – is booming in popularity.

Reconnecting our bodies and minds, the therapy said to increase understanding of how our thoughts influence our emotions and behaviour, and promotes self-esteem.

Dozens of scientific studies have found it to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, and millions say the practise has transformed their lives for the better.

One recent meta-analysis of six trials found individuals who received a mindfulness-based therapy were 43 per cent less likely to experience depressive symptoms than those receiving other therapies.

It’s NHS recommended for treating anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression and phobias.

And you don’t need an appointment with a psychotherapist to do it. There are DIY books, apps, and even spa retreats lasting weeks on end in which guests swap their busy lives for intensive, daily mindfulness activities including meditation and yoga. There is no doubt that mindfulness is a welcome addition to the psychotherapists’ toolbox. Yet, amid the enthusiasm, a growing number of psychological experts are concerned that, far from being a panacea, mindfulness could actually be putting the mental health of thousands of people at risk.

RISK OF BEING ALONE WITH YOUR THOUGHTS

During a typical mindfulness session, individuals sit in silence with their eyes closed for between ten and 60 minutes, focusing on one thing such as the sensations of breathing in and out.

When the mind wanders, patients are advised to bring their attention back to the thing they are focusing on. Sessions can be carried out alone, or with the help of a therapist or ‘guide’.

Studies have shown that mindfulness can improve self-esteem, reduce anxiety and help to manage depression. But leading psychologists warn there could be a dark side, and the therapy can in fact exacerbate or even trigger serious psychiatric illness in some vulnerable individuals.

Dr Miguel Farias, a psychologist and researcher from Coventry University, says: ‘For about five per cent of people, these practices have a paradoxical effect. It makes them much more anxious, induces panic attacks and even psychosis.’

A recent study celebrated mindfulness for reducing war veterans’ symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

According to Dr Farias, more than 20 studies – involving thousands of participants – over the past two decades have demonstrated the potentially damaging effect of mindfulness meditation.

‘Many people have childhood traumas or underlying mental health problems that may be undiagnosed,’ notes Dr Farias. ‘Being forced to sit alone with their thoughts brings out dark memories which they can’t cope with.’ He believes the adverse effects have been overshadowed by a celebrity-fuelled ‘mindfulness hype’.

A recent study celebrated mindfulness for reducing war veterans’ symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder – such as flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and night terrors – by 20 per cent.

But two months after the intervention, soldiers’ symptoms returned and were just as debilitating.

A 2014 study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found a daily, 25-minute mindfulness exercise – similar to that of a popular phone app – actually increased blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol in anxious office workers.

Yet, in 2015, an all-party parliamentary group advocated the use of mindfulness in British educational, healthcare and criminal justice institutions. And since last year, the Government has funded mindfulness schemes in 200 British primary schools in an effort to combat the crisis in children’s mental health.

ZEN RETREATS THAT LEAVE YOU MORE DEPRESSED

Dr Mark Salter, a consultant psychiatrist in East London, has also witnessed the fallout of mindfulness. He says: ‘Most psychiatric illness, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, is rooted in trauma. People draw on a wide range of distracting coping mechanisms to deal with these day-to-day,’ he explains.

‘Mindfulness involves stopping all these mechanisms at once which can become distressing, often inducing severe panic and anxiety.’

For this reason, the UK’s leading venue, The Oxford Mindfulness Centre, exclude those with suicidalthoughts and psychiatric disorders from treatment.

‘It stops the scary stuff’: pupils thrive with mindfulness lessons

Schools in deprived areas teach meditation to help those affected by violence

A mindfulness class at English Martyrs primary school on Merseyside.

English Martyrs Catholic primary school in Litherland is a stone’s throw from one of Merseyside’s most notorious areas for gangs and gun crime, and most children at the school have been affected by the violence.

It is an unlikely place, perhaps, to find a thriving mindfulness teaching programme. But English Martyrs is one of a growing number of schools in deprived parts of Britain that are embracing meditation techniques to help vulnerable children cope.

“We see a lot of pressure put on children’s shoulders due to family circumstances, parents losing their jobs, financial stress, anxiety about crime, fear about homelessness,” said headteacher Lewis Dinsdale.

“Children internalise things, but what mindfulness has done is bring a number of quieter children to the surface – children who we’d never have known were going through such anxiety and stress at home. They haven’t wanted to speak to their mum and dad about it but it’s coming out in these sessions.”

One nine-year-old-boy confided that “petal breathing” – where the children open and close their fingers in time with their breath – helped him to forget about “all the scary stuff”.

“If I concentrate on my breathing, the worrying thoughts just go ‘pop’ and disappear,” he said.

Nationally, the Mindfulness in Schools Project said it had trained nearly 2,000 teachers this year, a jump of 40% on last year, and much of that growth came from schools with higher than average proportions of vulnerable children.

But for cash-strapped schools, it’s not cheap. Dinsdale said that he had to find £2,500 to train one member of staff. “As a head teacher you’re always looking at the bottom line, and that’s a lot of money,” he said.

The investment had paid off, he said, not just helping with children’s mental health but improving their academic performance too. He described how some children used to have panic attacks when sitting Sats. One girl had been physically sick on her test paper. He was critical of Ofsted inspectors for not being more tuned in to the benefits of mindfulness. “It’s frustrating because it isn’t a box that they have to tick,” he said.

English Martyrs headteacher Lewis Dinsdale is enthusiastic about the benefits of meditation for young children.

Dinsdale has been so convinced by the positive effect that the school has now introduced mindfulness workshops for parents too. “Some mums and dads are at breaking point and they’re taking it out on the children. They don’t know who to turn to,” he said.

The Raise the Youth Foundation in Bolton, a non-profit independent school, teaches children who have been excluded from the education system. Many of them have suffered abuse, lived on the streets and been in and out of foster care. “We are their last hope,” said Jason Steele, the school’s founder.

He said that the school brought mindfulness into the curriculum two years ago, though at the time he was far from convinced that it would have any significant effect. “I thought they’d be playing up,” he said. “But what’s surprised me is that all of them have taken something from it, some more than others.”

Steele said children at his school were probably among the most difficult young people to care for because they were used to pushing people away. Mindfulness, though, had built their self-esteem and was now a hugely positive force in their lives.

“It’s helping them to engage with the present rather than worrying about the future or blaming the past for everything,” he said.

Many of the teenagers have missed years of schooling; most have never sat exams before. He said that before mindfulness became part of the curriculum, they would do everything they could to avoid taking tests.

“They would just run around school slapping people, calling them Muppets, ripping paper, just really low-level behaviour,” he said.

That type of disruptive behaviour has not gone away, but it has tailed off. It happened because they were scared of failure, he said. That had been their life experience. “But showing them how to do meditation is helping them learn about relaxation, it’s given them a confidence they never had.”