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Advice about mindfulness

Watch Craig and Richard chat about some of the things you should consider before you start practising mindfulness.
CRAIG HASSED: Now what we are going to explore, just briefly, in this video is some of the caveats on mindfulness practice. So we’re entering into a mindfulness program in this online program. But there are some cautions, and some of them, of course, have been in the media, and it’s important to just make a few notes about what they are. Now, mindfulness has been found to be helpful for a whole range of problems, improving performance, but certainly dealing with stress and depression, and so on. And you’ll be exploring some of the studies that have looked at that and some of the evidence.
But when we’re entering into mindfulness, like, perhaps, exercise, it’s good for everybody, but not everybody’s going to get benefit from it. For example, some people may not be motivated or interested to practise it. Some people might have some incorrect notions about mindfulness, and therefore, perhaps come into it with an attitude of bias. Some people might know that it’s going to be helpful for them, but won’t necessarily practise and they won’t get benefit from it either. And sometimes, too, we can be learning mindfulness but not being well taught and practising what we’re thinking is mindfulness, in all good faith, but we’re not actually practising it, so we won’t necessarily get any benefit from that, as well.
But there are a couple of caveats I think that are probably worth noting. And perhaps we can divide these into very common things that happen when we’re learning mindfulness and perhaps some of the less common things but of more concern. Perhaps, Richard, would you like to talk about some of the really common things that can be uncomfortable when learning mindfulness?
RICHARD CHAMBERS: Certainly. One of the most important things to recognise, Craig, is that mindfulness is actually about getting more in touch with what’s really going on in each moment. And so while that sometimes means that we get our attention out of all the busy, stressful thoughts and into the present moment and, therefore, means that we relax and calm down and feel good, which is actually quite a common consequence of practising mindfulness. Sometimes, it means that we get in touch with things that we may not have been aware of or have may even been avoiding.
CRAIG HASSED: So that stress could become more obvious to us.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: Absolutely, if we’re stressed, if we’re anxious, you know, if we’ve got tension in the body, or physical discomfort, or pain–
CRAIG HASSED: Notice that the mind’s more distractable than we actually realise.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: Well, that’s one of the first things that happens. People realise just how busy their mind is actually, and it almost seems like, oh this might be making it worse. But it’s not. It’s just showing us what’s already happening.
CRAIG HASSED: Turning the lights on to something that was happening in the dark that kind of thing.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: That’s right. And certainly, if there are experiences like certain thoughts or emotions that we have been sort of trying to avoid or not aware of, we actually become more aware of that. So early on, that can be one of the really sort of common experiences of practising mindfulness.
CRAIG HASSED: So it’s not always going to be comfortable or easy.
CRAIG HASSED: And if we come into it with an assumption that it’s meant to be, then we might be quite quickly disappointed.
CRAIG HASSED: But I do say just learning how to work with those things, that’s the learning of mindfulness.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: That’s exactly right. So we practise a non-judgmental awareness. And sometimes that non-judgment sort of lags a little bit behind the awareness. But the practise of mindfulness is to notice what’s happening and just be with it, as it is. Make space for it.
CRAIG HASSED: Yes. And those very common things that are sometimes, I think, incorrectly labelled as adverse events. So it might be uncomfortable, like if we’re getting back to exercise after a long lay off. We might notice that we’ve got a few aching muscles the next day. And that’s not an adverse event, that’s just a sign that work is taking place. And it comes with the territory.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: That’s right. There are, of course, some more serious adverse events that have been reported in the literature, so you might want to–
RICHARD CHAMBERS: –mention some of them.
CRAIG HASSED: And they tend to be very uncommon, more anecdotal single case reports. For example, if somebody might have a disposition to say, mental illness, and does a very intensive retreat that they’re not practised for, like running a marathon when you’re not really properly trained up for it, or perhaps, it wouldn’t be appropriate for your state, then sometimes that can trigger a real adverse event. Trigger an episode of mental health problem. Now, that’s not what we’re going to be doing on this particular course. But it is important to note that if a person is going to consider doing a very intensive, silent retreat, it needs to be appropriate and get some appropriate advice for that.
And probably another couple of contraindications as well, is if in acute stage of severe depression, or perhaps a background of psychosis, then you need to be getting some advice and some close supervision from a well-trained mental health professional, who has significant experience in mindfulness. And mindfulness can help, but knowing how to guide one through that is very important. And in the pits of a deep depression, for example, it’s not an easy time or necessarily appropriate to be learning mindfulness at that time.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: No. There’s a study that’s being commonly talked about by Shapiro and some colleagues that sort of identified some adverse events when people doing mindfulness retreats, but actually, if you look closely at the study, those adverse events were happening before the people actually started the retreat. So again, you know, it’s very important to proceed slowly. Not to do too much, too quickly. To, obviously, seek professional medical advice, if you’re not sure about your mental state before doing a longer retreat and, as he said, if anything uncomfortable happens that becomes persistent, you might want to seek out the advice of a very experienced meditation teacher with– or mindfulness teacher with mental health experience and/or a mental health professional.

Before we get too far into the practice of mindfulness it is worthwhile noting that although it has been demonstrated to be a very safe and effective intervention for a wide range of applications, challenges can arise while practising mindfulness.

Please take some time to watch Craig and Richard discuss some of these issues.

Want to learn more?

The “Is mindfulness safe?” article by Oxford Mindfulness Centre discusses the research behind adverse events arising from mindfulness practice. It distinguishes between temporary discomfort and lasting harm, and provides hints about how to practise to ensure these risks are minimised.

Brown University’s “Study documents range of challenging meditation experiences” article discusses some of the challenging experiences that people occasionally have when practising mindfulness.

The main message is that if you have experiences during meditation that are not pleasant and “positive”, this is not your fault or a sign you are doing anything incorrectly.

Such experiences are actually normal and can be a sign of progress, although care should be taken not to do too much meditation practice or go on long silent retreats when facing mental health challenges such as depression, severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or psychosis. If you have any significant concerns about your mental health we strongly recommend that you seek professional advice and support.

Remember, mindfulness is safe and useful in general, as long as it is practised correctly. Like with physical exercise, some minor discomfort may be a sign of progress, and at the same time it is important to practise in a way that is sustainable and safe.

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Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance

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