Mindful Meditation Holds Potential as Mental Health Intervention but Lacks Enough Scientific Evidence to Prove Its Effectiveness
Research around mindfulness mainly focuses on its positives, even though it can worsen symptoms of trauma.
A common example of mindfulness cited by practitioners is the Samurai and the Fly– a dramatic animated telling of an extremely buff samurai who splits a pesky fly open, only to have it multiply into two flies. Soon, there’s an army of flies, and the samurai cannot do much but accept things as they are — which turns the flies into flower petals (metaphorically). Beyond the abject horror of a million buzzing flies, the video supposedly conveys the crux of mindfulness – resilience. Though mindfulness may not work as magically as this in a real-life situation, the potential benefits and problems of the practice deserve exploration.
Mindful behavior owes its origins to the teachings of the Buddha, recorded more than 25 centuries ago. According to Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at UCLA Semel Institute’s Mindful Awareness Research Center in the U.S., “Mindful awareness is paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is.” Mindfulness is intrinsically tied to meditation, yoga, sports and other activities that involve a focus on breathing and returning the mind’s focus to the body’s current state. The varied assumed benefits of mindfulness range from improved focus to curbing anxiety and depression — which has led to the popularity of apps like Headspace, a guided meditation service that promises to reduce stress in merely 10 days.
However, when one pivots from mindfulness as a good practice to mindfulness as a science, or even mindfulness as an economy that guarantees results, strong evidence is necessary to support the touted benefits of the practice. Considering the science around mindfulness is still nascent, marketing it as a guaranteed way to obtain certain benefits could be a misguided, even harmful move.
“Any sort of tool that can facilitate awareness about one’s own mental habits is going to be a good thing. My personal feeling is that mobile apps are an excellent platform for delivering content. The jury is out to what extent apps are effective,” said David Vago, director of the Contemplative Neuroscience and Integrative Medicine (CNIM) Laboratory at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, U.S., in a statement.
However, Vago believes that apps still provide an excellent way to learn mindfulness on our own. “A rigorous evidence-base is emerging to optimize the delivery of mindfulness training for select populations. In our current fast-paced society, it’s not convenient or even feasible to go to a monastery for three years or even three months to learn mindfulness from master teachers — rather, science is helping determine what are the active ingredients of these practices and improve efficiency with which skills are trained.”
There has been a steep uptick in the curiosity surrounding mindfulness since the early 2000s. Before 2,000, there were about 39 scientific papers surrounding the subject; after 2000, the number jumped to more than 6,000. Beyond research, the social interest around mindfulness has spouted around 30,000 media articles annually, according to a Current Opinions in Psychologyjournal special issue centered around mindfulness. There are also various apps, coaching practices, corporate seminars, and more turning the act of just-being into a social phenomenon.
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The reason why mindfulness is popular isn’t hard to figure out. Greater awareness around and the destigmatization of stress and mental illnesses, coupled with a wellness industry boom, play a big role in popularizing mindfulness. Apart from that, early scientific progress related to mindfulness interventions and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (a combination of psychotherapy and mindful meditation used to treat chronic depression) helped a more conscious culture place their trust in mindfulness.
The scientific evidence surrounding mindfulness is nascent but growing, and initial research does suggest the practice can help. According to research, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy has been linked to helping alleviate relapses in chronic depression, encouraging body acceptance, helping with sleep disorders, reducing symptoms of stress, helping curtail addiction, and even reducing implicit race/sex bias.
What scientists worry about is the lack of rigorous evidence and inconsistent definitions of mindfulness, however. According to a report in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Sciences, only 9% of research on mindfulness-based interventions has been tested in clinical trials that includes a control group. The authors of this meta-analysis also state that mindfulness does produce results — but they are often not extraordinary. “Our report does not mean that mindfulness meditation is not helpful for some things,” Nicholas Van Dam, the lead author of the report, told Scientific American. “But the scientific rigor just isn’t there yet to be making these big claims.” Van Dam and his co-authors also added that they would like to see a growth in the number of meditation trials that monitored the potential negative effects of mindfulness.
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An area where the negative effects of mindfulness deserve exploration is trauma. Trauma, like mindfulness, is also extremely tied to the body and mind being aware of its situation — only negatively. David Treleaven, PhD, and author of Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing, told Mashable that focusing on one’s breath, remaining still for long periods of time, and paying close attention to anxious feelings might significantly worsen trauma symptoms — leading to thoughts of harm and danger, flashbacks to traumatic events, and even physical immobilization. In situations like these, therapy works significantly better. Specialized research around mindfulness that accounts for trauma survivors and other unique experiences are necessary for the intervention to be taken more seriously in medical contexts.
In a particularly imaginative form of theory, mindfulness sounds magnificent — it’d feel pretty good if we lived in a universe like that of the Samurai and the Fly, where a million flies could melt into a million petals. The real-world implications of mindfulness, though, are quite unglamorous in comparison. However, mindfulness still holds a lot of promise as a potential healing and coping mechanism that could introduce individual and community well-being into society. However, a slow, sure approach to any intervention is exponentially more preferable to believing the hype — which might lead to harm, at worst, and a waste of time, at best.
Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.