You can’t avoid the marketing of mindfulness these days. It’s everywhere. But beyond puffs and promises of living a better life, is there actually any proof that it works?
We’re getting used to seeing mindfulness cropping up in the news and popular media. Business leaders are preaching its benefits. Rock stars and celebrities are endorsing it. But what’s less visible is the huge amount of research that is going on behind the scenes into the effectiveness of mindfulness and meditation.
The question is, then, can mindfulness really help us to live better, healthier and happier lives?
Turning to mindfulness
A few years back I couldn’t stop shaking. It was too subtle for others to notice, but I was living with a foggy head and what felt like a constant electrical buzz pulsing through my body. If I held my hand out in front of me, it didn’t stay steady.
By all accounts, it had been a huge year: An abrupt interstate move. Marriage. Another pregnancy loss. A new job. Long distance travel. More long distance travel. Time away from home. Lack of energy, lack of exercise. A dying relative – my second mum – so far away on the other side of the world.
So many highs, so many lows, and my mind and body said no. Enough.
So I did what many people do in a time of crisis: turn inward, that is until I had to reach out to far wiser people and traditions to help me move through the fog. I didn’t want to stay there.
I read texts by Rick Hanson, Pema Chodron and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, books that had sat unread on my shelf for years1,2,3. I reconnected with a regular yoga and meditation practice, learning from experienced teachers, noticing tensions in my body and the flittering, self-critical nature of my mind. I listened to podcasts and advice on how to switch off the noise and get back in touch with what matters.
And it all felt like coming home. Clichéd, maybe, but the sense of settling back into myself and giving myself the space to be present and quiet in the knowledge that this was a temporary state was hugely reassuring.
Because I was aware that in this stressed state I was more persuadable than usual, I sought out texts and experiences that were grounded, solid, scientific. No fluff; no woo-woo.
By the time I attended my first mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course, I’d already made up my mind: I was going into this not only for myself, I was going into this to learn how to bring mindfulness to other people too.
This was too good to keep to myself.
Science examines mindfulness
The effectiveness of mindfulness is not just anecdotal, and researchers have taken note. At the time of writing, there have already been 136 high-level mindfulness studies published this year.
That’s 136 meta-analysis and systematic reviews published through credible medical databases on the topic of mindfulness, covering everything from the benefits of mindfulness on mental health, anxiety and depression right through to its effectiveness as part of a treatment plan for pain and physical diseases.
Compare this to ten years ago where there were only six high-level studies published the that year, and you can see that mindfulness isn’t just being talked about in populist context: it is being explored scientifically too.
Overall, there appear to be undeniable benefits and few risks, but there are also gaps in the research and some agreed concerns.
More research required to quieten the critics
As with anything that gains popularity, people are keen to find fault with mindfulness as a practice.
But here’s the thing: despite some naysayers trying to discredit mindfulness-based interventions, there are no reports suggesting that they negatively affect people or trigger worsened states of being.5 There are also strong suggestions that mindfulness treatments may be as effective as ‘psychological (and psychiatric) interventions’.4
These are reassuring – and big – claims. If there are no supposed downsides, why wouldn’t you give it a go?
Most of these studies are, however, in agreement that more research into mindfulness is needed, particularly clinical trials and long-term studies that track whether the benefits stick (or whether any negatives creep in as time goes by).
Mindfulness to improve overall quality of life
If you are already meditating regularly and practising being mindful, this will be stating the obvious, but there is evidence to suggest that adopting a mindfulness practice can help in subtle ways to improve both our work and personal lives.
Who doesn’t want better relationships and interactions with colleagues, friends and family members? Who doesn’t want to feel clear-headed and confident when making decisions at work or elsewhere?
I’ve found myself on more than a number of occasions caught up in work stress or personal relationship dramas, and more often than not it’s a result of not being mindful. Not keeping up my meditation practice. Not acting with mindful awareness.
The very idea that regular mindfulness practice can help us to act with ‘mindful awareness’in any given situation and improve our ‘psychosocial functioning’ should be enough for any of us to want to consider integrating it into our lives.5
Studies have consistently shown that when people do integrate mindfulness into their lives they experience greater emotional clarity and notable improvements in a number of areas, including:
- level of functioning5
- view of self/self-esteem5,6
- social interactions5
- cognitive clarity5,7
- emotional regulation and clarity6,7,8
- pain management4,7
- attitude to food/diet4
Even better, although more research is needed, mindfulness-based interventions also have the potential to deliver more than just short-term state changes.9
In short, mindfulness is said to allow us operate from a clearer, considered vantage point that is constructive to our personal, work and family time.
Stress, depression and mindfulness
Improving general wellbeing is one thing, but what role does mindfulness play in improving mental wellbeing? Stress, anxiety and depression have, after all, become an accepted reality of the modern world, and something you and I are likely to experience at various junctions in our life.
To highlight the extent of this problem, read this from the World Health Organisation: between 1990 and 2013, the number of people suffering from depression and/or anxiety increased by nearly 50%, from 416 million to 615 million.10
That’s a huge jump. And scary.
The promising news is that – according to the research – mindfulness practices can significantly improve anxiety and depressive symptoms, and mindfulness-based interventions are on a par with other interventions that include cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and antidepressants.4,5,6
It makes sense, then, that when we’re experiencing stress, anxiety or depression we consider adopting mindfulness practices into our lives, or seeking out programs that teach us some of the skills at the core of mindfulness.
Backed by scientific research, the most trusted of these programs include the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs.8
Having myself gone through an 8-week MBSR course some years back, I can recommend it as a clear introduction for people new to the practice and a great reminder for anyone who’s got momentarily distracted by the busyness of life and needs a gentle reminder to get back on the mindful path.
Mindfulness to treat severe mental health conditions
While it’s accepted that many of us will experience episodes of stress, anxiety and/or depression, The World Health Organisation indicate that 1 in 4 people are affected by a more serious mental disorder at some point in their lives.11
Treating these mental disorders is not only important but also expensive.
Not treating them, though, is even more expensive and could ‘result in a global economic loss of a trillion US dollars every year’, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).7,12
It makes sense, then, to pay attention to studies that indicate mindfulness-based interventions –often deemed to be a cheaper treatment option – can result in clinical improvements in severe and persistent mental illnesses, including psychosis, disassociation and addiction.4,5,6See also: Is Mindfulness An Effective Treatment For Substance Abuse and Drug Addiction?
But for those in the grips of severe and persistent mental illnesses, mindfulness-based practices and interventions should be approached with care: it’s recommended that sessions are formally structured, guided by someone experienced and part of a broader treatment program.5,6
So if you find yourself in a vulnerable state of mind, heed this advice and surround yourself with the appropriate care and support. Now is not likely the time to be jumping solo into focused mindfulness practises.
I have heard, for example, an account of someone going into a silent meditation retreat at a point in their life when they were extremely vulnerable. It was ill timed. The intensity and unguided nature of the practice resulted in a worsened mental state, something that might have been avoided in a more structured and supported setting.
Yes, it’s anecdotal, yes the research suggests that there are ‘no reports on acute exacerbation of symptoms’, but tread carefully.5
So does mindfulness work?
Before you decide on a teacher or type of practice, you may want the reassurance that you’re not wasting your time with what is too often portrayed as a spacey, alternative activity.
So let the research findings reassure you.
Firstly, the fact that so much funding is being put into mindfulness research is reassuring. If there was no clear indication that mindfulness had the potential to be an effective way to deal with a whole range of conditions, the funding would be pulled.
Secondly, mindfulness has already been shown to work. It is effective on many levels. Supported by an ever-increasing number of studies, this appears to be true for general wellbeing and cognitive improvement through to the treatment of stress, anxiety, depression and more debilitating mental health conditions.
While mindfulness can’t be seen as a panacea, it does seem to make sense that – especially in a climate of deteriorating mental health – we start to demystify and normalise mindfulness and bring it into daily life.
Let’s see where the growing body of research takes this.
But for now, go get mindful. With the knowledge we have at hand today, why wouldn’t you?
What’s your experience with mindfulness and mindfulness mediation? How has it impacted your life? In your opinion, does mindfulness work? Comment below.
References & further resources
- Hanson R with Mendius R. Buddhas Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom. Raincoast Books; 2009.
- Chodrön P. The Wisdom of No Escape. Element: HarperCollins Publishers; 2001.
- Csikszentmihalyi M. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial Modern Classics ed. HarperCollins Publishers;
- Goldberg SB, Tucker RP, Greene PA, et al. Mindfulness-based interventions for psychiatric disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review. 2018;59:52-60.
- Potes A, Souza G, Nikolitch K, et al. Mindfulness in severe and persistent mental illness: a systematic review, International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice. 2018; doi:10.1080/13651501.2018.1433857
- Cooper D, Yap K, Batalha L. Mindfulness-based interventions and their effects on emotional clarity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2018;235:265-276.
- Alsubaie M, Abbott R, Dunn B, et al. Mechanisms of action in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in people with physical and/or psychological conditions: a systematic review. Clinical Psychology Review.2017;55:74-91.
- Gu J, Strauss C, Bond R, et al. How do mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction improve mental health and wellbeing: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review. 2015;37:1-12.
- Tomlinson ER, Yousaf O, Vitterso AD, et al. Dispositional mindfulness and psychological health: a systematic review. Mindfulness. 2017;9:23-43. doi 10.1007/s12671-017-0762-6.
- World Health Organisation. Depression: let’s talk” says WHO, as depression tops list of causes of ill health. 2017.//www.who.int/news-room/detail/30-03-2017–depression-let-s-talk-says-who-as-depression-tops-list-of-causes-of-ill-health
- World Health Organisation. WHO Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020 brochure. 2013. //www.who.int/mental_health/action_plan_2013/en/
- World Health Organisation. Investing in treatment for depression and anxiety leads to fourfold return. 2018. //www.who.int/news-room/headlines/13-04-2016-investing-in-treatment-for-depression-and-anxiety-leads-to-fourfold-return
- Lieberman B. Mindfulness may have been over-hyped. 2018 //www.bbc.com/future/story/20180502-does-mindfulness-really-improve-our-health
- Weinberg M. Does mindfulness work? //this.deakin.edu.au/lifestyle/does-mindfulness-work