In last week's 'Your Mental Health' column in The Southern Star, I examined what the research says about the alleged mental health benefits of mindfulness. The piece is reproduced below.
Mindfulness was once regarded as a niche Buddhist practice. Now mindfulness books are bestsellers, companies like Google and Apple run mindfulness programmes, and it’s being billed as a treatment for all kinds of mental health problems. Is mindfulness the real deal, or just another fad?
According to one Harvard study, people spend 47 per cent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing at the moment. Mindfulness aims to wake us from this autopilot mode, to direct our attention to what is happening in the present moment and to train ourselves to pay attention in a non-judgemental way – in essence, to de-clutter our minds.
Mindfulness is the subject of many misconceptions. It’s sometimes seen as a spiritual practice, but mindfulness is simply a form of mental health training. Anyone – atheist or believer – can practice mindfulness.
Others imagine it to be supremely relaxing, whereby you set aside time for yourself and zone out. Mindfulness can indeed be relaxing, but quieting a busy mind can take time. Some people initially find the breathing exercises involved in mindfulness programmes can make them more anxious, and berate themselves for “failing”. ‘I seem to be unable to meditate’, says one person quoted in a Guardian article on the subject. ‘My mind is very busy, and I just end up thinking about how I should be meditating, with all sorts of other thoughts whizzing by as well’.
MARK WILLIAMS ON MINDFULNESS
As for zoning out, the opposite is true – mindfulness is about zooming in. It’s easy to get ‘caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour’, notes Professor Mark Williams, one of the pioneers of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). Mindfulness aims to make people more aware of their thoughts and feelings; to approach rather than avoid difficult emotions and experiences.
The self-help movement has seen lots of silly fads over the years. Remember Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret? It sold millions of copies globally, despite the fact its claims about the power of positive thinking and the ‘law of attraction’ were unscientific nonsense.
Mindfulness is different and should not be dismissed as some kind of dubious fad. Studies over the last 15 years show it reduces rumination and can help ease depression, anxiety and stress as well as improving quality of life in people with various medical conditions. This strong evidence base means that in the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to help prevent depressive relapse among people who have experienced three or more depressive episodes.
Consequently, mindfulness strategies are increasingly used by cognitive behavioural therapists. In the early days of CBT, the focus was largely on identifying and actively challenging negative thoughts. The benefits of this approach are unquestionable, but CBT researchers increasingly recognise it’s not always necessary to actively combat unhelpful thoughts – rather, they can be calmly viewed as passing mental events.
Speaking personally, I have found mindfulness training to be beneficial. I try to be mindful in my everyday life, and frequently recommend mindfulness strategies to clients.
Some caution is warranted, however. Firstly, many people running mindfulness programmes have no experience of working with people with mental health problems.
Secondly, mindfulness alone is not a panacea and should not be over-hyped. Recent analysis has raised questions regarding the methodological quality of some mindfulness studies. In particular, a recent study suggests the results may be affected by what’s known as publication bias – the tendency for journals and researchers to be more likely to publish studies with positive findings than studies with negative findings. Negative findings, unfortunately, tend to be gather dust in filing cabinets, skewing the overall results. ‘I have no doubt that mindfulness helps a lot of people’, said the so-author of the study. However, the effect may not be as significant as sometimes suggested.
Is mindfulness is a very useful tool, especially for people prone to brooding and ruminating? Yes. Can it help us to see the world afresh and ease day-to-day stress? Yes. Is it a panacea that magics away all our distressing emotions? Afraid not – nothing is.