Mindfulness in Moderation
PUBLISHED: Monday, April 26, 2021

Mindfulness in Moderation

Meditators often sing the proverbial gospel of mindful practice far and wide; we’re just as guilty of that kind of evangelizing as anyone else. We’re quick to talk about the objective and subjective benefits of mindfulness because they’re very real and hard to grasp until they’ve been experienced. But one aspect that we often forget to espouse, especially to all the new students who have taken up meditation in the last year, is the importance of moderation.

Just as too much exercise can lead to serious health complications like rhabdomyolysis, too much meditation can lead to serious mental health complications like depression and/or anxiety—the opposite of the intended effect. Being good advocates for mindfulness means being aware of the potential side effects of too much time spent “in our own heads” and warning new students about those pitfalls. As much as 25% of meditators report experiencing adverse effects from their practice, so these aren’t isolated or statistically insignificant instances.

Meditation and the Human Brain

Although we often hear about and discuss the benefits of meditation from a highly subjective, personal frame of reference, there are objective, physiological gains that come from mindful practices. Brain scans have shown that long-term meditators show both substantial growth/thickening of the insula cortex (the part of the brain that governs emotion and bodily perception) and increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (which governs focus and emotional reactivity). That’s why so many people who take up mindful practice talk about being happier or feeling sharper mentally as a result—they are!

Like most good things, though, these developments can go too far. For example, that growth in the insula cortex can lead to emotional responses that are triggered more easily and felt more deeply. In moderation, those both contribute to healthy emotional growth. Too much meditation, though, can twist that growth into anxiety and panic attacks because emotions are felt too deeply and brought about too easily. This mechanism also causes meditation to worsen depression in some practitioners rather than help alleviate it (always as part of a proper regiment of exercise, diet, and medication).

Likewise, increased activity in the prefrontal cortex can be wonderful for concentration, clear thinking, and healthy emotional regulation. In moderation, these are wonderful byproducts of mindful practice. But when they’re taken too far, these effects lead individuals to be emotionally “cold” or “disconnected” because their emotional responses are effectively overregulated. The increased activity and emotional detachment can even negatively impact sleep, which sets off a domino reaction of other mental and physical problems that quickly offset any gains one might have made through meditation.

(And, for those wondering, no. These adverse effects don’t offset or correct one another. They just compound.)

How Much Is Too Much?

Exactly what qualifies as “too much” mindfulness is hard to define, mostly because it varies from person to person. Broadly speaking, you shouldn’t be trying to meditate multiple times every day of the week. Even once a day is probably a little bit too much. If you work Monday through Friday, consider using weekends as a break from your job and mindful practice. Or maybe only meditate on your days off so you don’t have something else taking up precious personal time during the workweek. The point is to strike a balance that lets you enjoy the benefits of meditation without it becoming too much of a good thing.