We often read that mindfulness interventions are ‘evidence-based’ approaches. If they are actually, what's the evidence we can trust? The American Mindfulness Research Association shows 692 research articles were written in 2017, a slight increase from the 690 papers in 2016. This is still quite a jump from less than 10 papers in a year from 1990-2000. Do we believe every one of them? Do we discard what global experts say aren't meeting their standards? Or do we hope that although not all are done exceptionally well, they still give hope--not just hype.
The last five to ten years have seen an explosion of studies showing all sorts of positive effects coming from mindfulness practice. Certainly, this has helped increase the widespread acceptance of mindfulness as a way to better well-being. However, what we can also observe is a backlash to the hype, a common reaction to any kind of hype.
As mindfulness is often being sold as a panacea for alleviating anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and more, there are also more and more articles to be found written by somebody who has actually given it a try, attended a course and didn’t get anything out of it. The judgment then often is anything from belittling to depreciative.
In a way, this backlash is healthy because it might foster a more critical stance in many people, researchers as well as people in the “mindfulness industry”, both, providers and consumers.
Important: Anyone who wants to try mindfulness while experiencing severe psychological problems such as severe depression or borderline personality disorder, alcohol or substance abuse, or trauma that causes distress, should work with a relevant professional (e.g. GP, psychologist, psychiatrist or psychotherapist) to see if mindfulness is the right intervention and if it's the right time to engage in it. In any of such cases, mindfulness interventions MAY be helpful but must be used in conjunction with therapy.
So what do we really know about positive effects of mindfulness courses?
Right at the beginning of an MBSR/MBCT course, we come to see that there is such a thing as mind-wandering. This is really the starting point and a key component of meditative training; the moment when - being in silence and observing the physical sensations of, for example, the breath flowing in and out of the body - we realise that our mind repeatedly leaves its focus of attention. This moment when we realise, when we wake up from mind-wandering, actually is meditation.
1. Mind-Wandering is Reduced
So the first thing to say about evidence is that mind-wandering lessens with training our attentive muscle. This said, not all mind-wandering is bad as many creative ideas actually happen when we don’t focus on a specific mental task. Yet, we are often driven by our wandering mind without realising it. It is as if our thoughts are working in the background and from there driving our actions.
2. Less Reactivity and Better Resilience
Second, we know that even after as little as eight weeks of training (the usual length of MBSR or MBCT) there are structural changes to be found in certain brain regions that are linked to, for example, less reactivity, and a faster recovery after an emotional stimulus.
3. Improved Focus
Third, studies have shown that with mindfulness training we become increasingly better in tasks that involve focussing our attention.
These top 3 benefits have other useful effects in the way we work and live our lives. (We've already featured these in the past https://www.thehappywarrior.co.uk/science-of-mindfulness) You don't have to suffer from S.A.D. (stress, anxiety and depression) to gain from these effects. Consider working in a factory that assembles parts with precision. Less mind-wandering will definitely be of help. Or working in a social care context where clients can sometimes be difficult. Less reactivity and better resilience can actually make you effective in your work. Or leading a team towards a corporate target. Having an undistracted, undisturbed mind will help.
If mindfulness is basically that we train our attentive muscle, you might rightly say, this might likewise be achieved through learning to play an instrument, concentrating on a specific sport or else since there are many ways to train our attention. However, there must be more to find in mindfulness courses than becoming able to better control our attention as so many people do feel a transformative effect on their lives. Let’s be honest: science is yet have to figure out the role mindfulness plays in this. Current studies often involve questionnaires with which participants self-assess their ‘mindfulness’ and sense of well-being, many of them showing promising results. The work of Goleman and Davidson in their book, The Science of Meditation (Sep. 2017) explores some cutting-edge research using brain scans and differentiates between high-standard peer reviewed papers versus poorly done ones.
There are also several studies that measure outcomes regarding health problems. For example, there is evidence that MBCT can be helpful for people who have gone through episodes of depression or suffering from anxieties, and MBSR has been shown to help people with chronic pain. It is important to mention here that neither does mindfulness help one get rid of depressive disease or chronic pain, rather participants learn to relate differently to their health problem and take better care of themselves thus often leading to an alleviation of symptoms.
To sum up, at this moment in time we are still in a discovering phase in relation to the effects of mindfulness. As one of the long-time investigators in the field, Daniel Goleman, says, we are in need of “longitudinal studies of a single group of practitioners doing a single practice and follow them over years to see what difference it actually makes. … The first slice of data [we now have]…. makes clear that there are real benefits from meditation, but we have no idea what practices will manifest in what ways. There is a lot more to learn.“ Check out Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson at HBR for more information on what the evidence they have gathered. https://www.facebook.com/HBR/videos/10155426808127787/
Of course, there’s also always the possibility to come and take a look, to try for yourself.