Mindfulness can improve mental health and wellbeing
Mindfulness courses can reduce anxiety, depression, and stress and increase mental wellbeing within most but not all non-clinical settings, say a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge. They also found that mindfulness may be no better than other practices aimed at improving mental health and wellbeing. Mindfulness is typically defined as ‘the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment’. It has become increasingly popular in recent years as a way of increasing well-being and reducing stress levels.
In the UK, the National Health Service offers therapies based on mindfulness to help treat mental health issues such as depression and suicidal thoughts. However, the majority of people who practice mindfulness learn their skills in community settings such as universities, workplaces, or private courses. Mindfulness-based programmes are frequently promoted as the go-to universal tool to reduce stress and increase wellbeing, accessible to anyone, anywhere.
Many randomised controlled trials (RCTs) have been conducted around the world to assess whether in-person mindfulness training can improve mental health and wellbeing, but the results are often varied. In a report published today in PLOS Medicine, a team of researchers from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge led a systematic review and meta-analysis to examine the published data from the RCTs. This approach allows them to bring together existing – and often contradictory or underpowered – studies to provide more robust conclusions.
The team identified 136 RCTs on mindfulness training for mental health promotion in community settings. These trials included 11,605 participants aged 18 to 73 years from 29 countries, more than three-quarters (77%) of whom were women.
The researchers found that in most community settings, compared with doing nothing, mindfulness reduces anxiety, depression, and stress, and increases wellbeing. However, the data suggested that in more than one in 20 trial settings, mindfulness-based programmes may not improve these outcomes.
The researchers caution that RCTs in this field tended to be of poor quality, so the combined results may not represent the true effects. For example, many participants stopped attending mindfulness courses and were not asked why, so they are not represented in the results. When the researchers repeated the analyses including only the higher-quality studies, mindfulness only showed effects on stress, not on wellbeing, depression, or anxiety.
The researchers say that the variability in the success of different mindfulness-based programmes identified among the RCTs may be down to a number of reasons, including how, where, and by whom they are implemented as well as at whom they are targeted. The techniques and frameworks taught in mindfulness have rich and diverse backgrounds, from early Buddhist psychology and meditation to cognitive neuroscience and participatory medicine – the interplay between all of these different factors can be expected to influence how effective a programme is.
The number of online mindfulness courses has increased rapidly, accelerated further by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although this review has not looked at online courses, studies suggest that these may be as effective as their offline counterparts, despite most lacking interactions with teachers and peers.
(Content Courtesy: https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/mindfulness-can-improve-mental-health-and-wellbeing-but-unlikely-to-work-for-everyone)