Mindfulness: The Good and the Bad for Mental Health

August 6, 2020 Laura Gouge

Mindfulness–you’ve probably heard of it. The newest wellness obsession. The cure-all for any of your problems: sleep, stress, grades, immune system, you name it. Mindfulness seems to be the world’s favorite magic bullet of today, touted by traditional doctors and alternative health gurus alike (and seemingly everyone else under the sun). But how much of the hype is true? What can it really do for you, if anything?

Mindfulness is often associated with meditation and Buddhism, though it isn’t necessarily the same thing. Mindfulness is defined as present awareness of something, such as presence as you work, breathe, walk, eat, etc. This certainly isn’t a bad thing. A Harvard study found that on average, humans spent 46.9 percent of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we are doing at the moment. They found that the more mind-wandering, the lower the perception of happiness (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010).

Meditation is a formal seated or walking mindfulness practice. The words sound similar, but aren’t interchangeable. I have practiced both extensively in my life, and also continue to be curious about the emerging body of evidence around meditation and mindfulness. 

What I personally love about mindfulness:

  • Its free
  • Accessible to anyone
  • Supports the brain in emotional regulation
  • Can be practiced anywhere
  • Helps build resiliency
  • Helps with feeling our feelings
  • Can help with sleep and anxiety 

In terms of what the research says, the good news is this: in the past few decades, research on mindfulness has grown exponentially, and only continues to grow. And the results are exciting

. Like, hype-worthy exciting. There are studies showing the effect of mindfulness on:

lowering anxiety (Miller, Fletcher, & Kabat-Zinn, 1995)

lowering depression symptoms (Lopez-Maya, Olmstead, & Irwin, 2019)

reducing subjective loneliness (Creswell et al., 2012) 

improving chronic pain management (Hilton et al., 2017)

improving quality of sleep (Black et al., 2015)

reducing frequency of panic attacks (Miller, Fletcher, & Kabat-Zinn, 1995) 

And the list keeps going. And going… It certainly feels like we’ve discovered the holy grail of well-being! There has been a massive trend in the media recommending mindfulness as a panacea for most of our woes. 

The not-so-good news is this: we don’t actually know as much as we think we do. The field of mindfulness research is still very new, and many of these studies haven’t yet been replicated (a very important part of establishing that a study’s results are in fact what they seem), and much of the research is done by people already hyped about meditation, so there’s a lot of positive bias to wade through (Tang, Hölzel, & Posner, 2015). In fact, even the field of neuroscience is pretty new, and though we can say what parts of the brain are activated in meditation, we don’t really know what that means yet (ibid). 

Additionally, when practiced in the context of mental illness or a history of trauma, sometimes meditation makes things worse before they get better. It’s like suddenly turning on a light in a room we haven’t visited for years, and the stuff has been piling up. It can feel overwhelming if you’ve never peeked into that room. Similarly, there can be very intense physical sensations that arise when we drop fully into our breath and body. Our bodies may not be a place where we feel safe, and triggers may arise. We need to approach this practice gently, with a guide or an anchor to accompany us on this journey. It may be too overwhelming to do alone. The goal in a trauma-informed context of care is not to fully avoid all triggers. Rather, we want to slowly and gently build up our internal reserve so that we can resolve underlying triggers. 

This might mean practicing a short meditation in an appointment together, attending group meditation or mindfulness classes, or even listening to guided meditation at home. It also means making sure the client is fully informed of what might happen so they can be prepared. There is nothing worse than feeling blind sighted by an anxiety attack when we were expecting to be cured of all anxious thinking on our second day of meditation practice. 

Luckily, we don’t need research to know what feels good for our well-being. Many throughout history have spoken of the importance of being present. We’ve seen it in various faith traditions and heard it from those intimate with the end of life: taking time to see what’s good, to feel the body, to savor life with your full attention is to live a worthwhile life. And it has intuitive benefits to support our well-being: the more aware you are, the more wisely you can show up for yourself and others. 

So what do we know? Unfortunately, the effects of mindfulness probably won’t put you in a state of eternal bliss and perfect health, as the media excitement suggests. However, the initial results of mindfulness research are promising, showing a variety of benefits of a mindfulness practice. 

The bottom line: if you feel inclined, try it out–you may find it to be a powerful practice to support your health and well-being. If you think you need more support, seek out a meditation or mindfulness group in your area, or look for a therapist or doctor who uses it in their practice. There is no one size fits all in health, and always figure out what works best for you. 

References

Black, S., O’Reilly, A., Olmstead, R., Breen, C., & Irwin, R. (2015). Mindfulness meditation and improvement in sleep quality and daytime impairment among older adults with sleep disturbances: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA internal medicine, 175(4), 494-501.

Creswell, D., Irwin, R., Burklund, J., Lieberman, D., Arevalo, M., Ma, J., … & Cole, W. (2012). Mindfulness-based stress reduction training reduces loneliness and pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults: a small randomized controlled trial. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 26(7), 1095-1101.

Hilton, L., Hempel, S., Ewing, A., Apaydin, E., Xenakis, L., Newberry, S., … & Maglione, A. (2017). Mindfulness meditation for chronic pain: systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 51(2), 199-213.

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science330(6006), 932-932.

Lopez-Maya, E., Olmstead, R., & Irwin, R. (2019). Mindfulness meditation and improvement in depressive symptoms among Spanish and English speaking adults: A randomized, controlled, comparative efficacy trial. PloS one, 14(7).

Miller, J., Fletcher, K., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (1995). Three-Year Follow-up and Clinical Implications of a Mindfulness Meditation-Based Stress Reduction Intervention in the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders. General Hospital Psychiatry, 17, 192-200.

Tang, Y., Hölzel, K., & Posner, I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(4), 213-225.

 

{Cover photo by Andrea Piacquadio/In-text photo by Cottonbro}

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