Stressed? Depressed? Mindfulness Training Could Offer Long-Term Relief
The centuries-old practice of mindfulness is having a moment in present times, and a new study finds the therapy can improve mental health for at least six months.
Analyzing the results of 13 prior studies, U.K. researchers concluded that in-person, teacher-led mindfulness courses were tied to reduced stress and anxiety.
Mindfulness "was the seventh step of the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism many thousands of years ago. And lots of different cultures have used different variations of this,” said Dr. Yvette Sheline, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral research at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
There are many cited benefits of mindfulness, which is defined by UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.”
Mindfulness training is offered in over 600 companies globally, and 79% of U.S. medical schools, according to background notes with the new study. And it's estimated that at least 5% of U.S. adults have practiced mindfulness.
“Although there has been previous research on the topic, this is the largest and most reliable study so far confirming that these courses work for the average person,” said study co-author Julieta Galante, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge, in England.
For the study, Cambridge researchers pooled and analyzed data from 2,371 adults who participated in trial mindfulness-based programs. Around half were in programs that lasted for eight weeks, with one session a week. The rest did not participate in the mindfulness programs (the "control" group).
The scientists found that 13% more participants who were enrolled in these courses saw a small to moderate reduction in their psychological distress, compared to the control group.
However, Sheline, who was not part of the study, said it's important to note that the study excluded those suffering from more severe mental illnesses.
“Although some studies have done that and have shown a big effect in more severely ill populations, as well,” she noted.
Galante also wants to look into mindfulness for a wider range of people as next steps for the study.
“An important next step is to try and predict who is going to benefit and who won't,” she said. “We have looked into this a bit, and found that none of the following determine that someone will benefit more or less: age, gender, education level, or mental health and mindfulness levels before the course. And, as there are other things that people can do to improve their mental health, we need to find out who benefits the most from what.”
These days, there are a myriad of apps, podcasts and books that people interested in mindfulness can use to practice. But Galante said they are no substitute for in-person group therapy.
“Our research has not looked into practicing mindfulness on your own, so it is important that our research results are not used to promote solo mindfulness practice,” she said. “Solo mindfulness practice ... has much less evidence than teacher-led group-based courses — so we don't really know if solo mindfulness practice benefits people on average," Galante explained.
"The key here is that we know that sharing experiences with a group in a safe space, and having a teacher to trust and interact with, are very likely to improve mental health already — apart from any effects of the mindfulness meditation practice itself. And, in fact, we are not too sure that mindfulness meditation practice in itself has an effect — there are mixed findings,” she added.
Fortunately, classes are generally affordable and accessible in most cities, said Sheline, and they can come in a variety of forms.
“There are many, many different iterations of this. So mindfulness is one thing. Another is just progressive muscle relaxation. That's something you can also try. It kind of gets at the same kind of thing for transcendental meditation," Sheline said. "The motions of yoga or tai chi with a very slow, thoughtful movement is another way of doing the same thing. All these different ideas are related to the same basic idea of focusing your mind in such a way that you're focusing away from stress towards just being still in the moment.”
The study was published online July 10 in the journal Nature Mental Health.
For more on mindfulness, visit the Mindfulness Center at Brown University.
SOURCES: Yvette L. Sheline, McLure professor, psychiatry and behavioral research, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Julieta Galante, NIHR post-doctoral fellow, University of Cambridge, England; Nature Mental Health, July 10, 2023, online