Mental benefits of mindfulness don’t happen for everyone, researchers conclude

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Although finding peace and tranquility may sound like a great plan, a new study finds not everyone can clear their mind through meditation. Researchers at the University of Cambridge say the benefits of mindfulness vary depending on the person and their setting.

Mindfulness involves sitting silently and focusing on your thoughts, sounds, and sensations in the present moment. This popular form of meditation can help reduce anxiety, stress, and even the symptoms of depression. It is often touted as a universal tool for boosting mental wellbeing.

Researchers worldwide have conducted randomized control trials to determine whether this is really the case, but results have varied. Now, The Cambridge team has reviewed these previous studies to provide more “robust conclusions.”

“For the average person and setting, practicing mindfulness appears to be better than doing nothing for improving our mental health, particularly when it comes to depression, anxiety and psychological distress,” Dr. Julieta Galante says in a statement. “But we shouldn’t assume that it works for everyone, everywhere.”

Mindfulness can be a team sport

People often practice mindfulness in community settings such as universities, workplaces, or instructional classes. The researchers identified 136 trials which looked at whether mindfulness in a community setting promotes better mental health.

These trials included 11,605 participants between 18 to 73 years-old in 29 countries. More than three-quarters (77%) of the participants were women. The results reveal, in most cases, mindfulness did indeed reduce anxiety, stress, and depression compared with doing nothing. In more than one in 20 trial settings however, meditation did not work.

“Mindfulness training in the community needs to be implemented with care,” Dr. Galante explains. “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.”

Researchers suggest it could also be possible meditation works best for people who are already under large amounts of strain.

“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,” Galante adds.

The study also determined that mindfulness is no more effective than other feel-good activities such as exercise.

“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,” says study co-author Professor Peter Jones. “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.”

Meditation is in high demand during COVID

The number of mindfulness classes available to the public has jumped significantly over the past few years. They are particularly in demand since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the effectiveness of online courses has yet to be determined, preliminary research suggests they work, despite the lack of direct contact. Still, researchers warn that your personal results may vary.

“If the effects of online mindfulness courses vary as widely according to the setting as their offline counterparts, then the lack of human support they offer could cause potential problems,” Dr. Galante cautions. “We need more research before we can be confident about their effectiveness and safety.”

“The techniques and frameworks taught in mindfulness have rich and diverse backgrounds, from early Buddhist psychology and meditation through to cognitive neuroscience and participatory medicine,” Galante concludes. “The interplay between all of these different factors can be expected to influence how effective a program is.”

The findings appear in the journal PLOS Medicine.

SWNS writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report

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