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New evidence to suggest mindfulness can be harmful

Mindfulness is increasingly being used in classrooms to reduce stress and bring calm to the learning environment and to help students cope with their own stress and anxiety.

Dr Leigh Burrows, Senior Lecturer in Flinders University’s School of Education, says that teachers should be experienced mindfulness practitioners who know how to adapt activities for vulnerable students before they teach or offer mindfulness as some people find mindfulness meditation to be upsetting, triggering adverse reactions such as feelings of anxiety and “emotional flooding”.

“Mindfulness is a deep and powerful healing process that has clear and measurable benefits for a lot of people,” Burrows said. “Until recently the sole research focus has been on whether it works, but there is now evidence that it can have harmful effects on adults who have a history of post-traumatic stress, depression, abuse or other psychological conditions or disabilities.

“It is reasonable, then, to consider that some young people may also have negative experiences.

“In my research I asked a group of US community college students about their experiences during mindfulness and their answers show it isn’t always positive. Some students reported feelings of heightened anxiety, panic and freaking out.”

Burrows said teachers looking to use mindfulness in their classrooms should:

  • Have at least three years’ background in their own practice of mindfulness
  • Take student vulnerability into consideration when planning activities
  • Invite people to participate in an inclusive, “opt in” setting, rather than make participation compulsory
  • Recognise that mindfulness prompts unique responses in individuals
  • Seek feedback from students to guide any necessary adjustments and provide links to school and counselling where necessary

Dr Burrows suggested teachers should consider other effective, “emotionally neutral” activities including movement and the arts.

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