Turns out mindfulness isn’t the cure-all everyone thinks it is

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Methods, strategies, and techniques to cope with and cut down on anxious, stressful, and depressive feelings have never been more in demand. The events of the past 12 months or so have taken a psychological toll on virtually everyone, and we’re all in pursuit of healthy stress-relief avenues.

Many have turned to mindfulness as a means of improving their mental health and overall well-being. In simple terms, mindfulness is the process of training one’s mind and thoughts to remain focused on the present moment without judgment and not get bogged down with ruminations and worries over the past and future. Mindfulness techniques often go hand-in-hand with meditation.

Plenty of people advocate for the effectiveness of mindfulness and all the mental health benefits it can offer, but is it truly a universal panacea for stress, anxiety, & depression?

Researchers from the University of Cambridge set out to answer that question and concluded that while mindfulness can reduce all those negative feelings and improve mental well-being for most people and across most settings, it isn’t going to help everyone everywhere. 

In fact, study authors say their findings suggest that mindfulness is no more effective at soothing anxious thoughts as other popular stress-relieving methods, such as exercise.

“For the average person and setting, practising mindfulness appears to be better than doing nothing for improving our mental health, particularly when it comes to depression, anxiety and psychological distress – but we shouldn’t assume that it works for everyone, everywhere,” comments first study author Dr. Julieta Galante from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge.

These conclusions shouldn’t be interpreted as an indictment of mindfulness or an attack on its proponents. There’s no denying its benefits for many people. Instead, this study should serve as validation for those who tried out mindfulness and didn’t find it helpful.

Considering how mindfulness is often described as a cure-all for any mental health issues, failing to find relief through a mindfulness program can feel especially defeating. 

At the end of the day, a truly universal cure-all for all matters of the mind just isn’t realistic. Each individual on this planet is unique, and even something that helps 90% of people like mindfulness isn’t going to soothe that other 10%. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the 10%; they just need to find what works for them.

Numerous previous studies have attempted to investigate the effectiveness of mindfulness, but final results have varied and proven inconclusive. So, the team at Cambridge decided to perform a comprehensive analysis of all available earlier research on the efficiency of in-person mindfulness courses. 

In all, researchers settled on 136 prior studies encompassing 11,605 people between the ages of 18 and 73 years old living in 29 different countries. 

Now, that analysis revealed that for most people and across the vast majority of community settings, mindfulness training helps do away with anxious, stressful, and depressive thoughts and increases well-being. That being said, in just over one in 20 studied scenarios mindfulness training did not relieve anxious or depressive feelings.

“Mindfulness training in the community needs to be implemented with care. Community mindfulness courses should be just one option among others, and the range of effects should be researched as courses are implemented in new settings. The courses that work best may be those aimed at people who are most stressed or in stressful situations, for example health workers, as they appear to see the biggest benefit,” Dr. Galante explains.

The research team also reports that mindfulness appears to be no more and no less effective than many other mental health help techniques.

“While mindfulness is often better than taking no action, we found that there may be other effective ways of improving our mental health and wellbeing, such as exercise. In many cases, these may prove to be more suitable alternatives if they are more effective, culturally more acceptable or are more feasible or cost effective to implement. The good news is that there are now more options,” says senior author Professor Peter Jones, also from Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry. 

It’s also worth considering that no two mindfulness courses are quite the same. A whole lot depends on the instructor, specific techniques being taught, and just how diligently the pupil practices. There are multiple variations of mindfulness, and it’s a technique that draws from a diverse array of sources including Buddhism and cognitive neuroscience, just to name a few.

So, if one mindfulness course doesn’t work for you, it may be worth trying another before moving on completely.

The full study can be found here, published in PLOS Medicine.