The concept of mindfulness has become increasingly popular in recent decades, with its status shifting from marginal to mainstream over the years, even though its origin can be traced back thousands of years with its roots in Buddhism (Forbes). We hear about mindfulness everywhere now, with practices ranging from mindful eating to mindfulness meditation. According to research, both public and academic interest in mindfulness has increased exponentially in the past decade (SAGE Publications). Far from being just a trend or buzzword, mindfulness is a practice that has indisputable impacts (for better or worse) on its followers.
Mindfulness appears to be a cure-all; with the surge in studies regarding mindfulness, researchers have painted an optimistic picture of it and delineated its benefits, while businesses have incorporated it into employees’ programs to better manage their stress. In 2019, the British government even introduced mindfulness as a subject in up to 370 English schools, as part of a research study focused on improving youth mental health (New York Times). But what exactly is mindfulness and is it really all that it claims to be?
Definition of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a state of mind generally defined as being fully present in the current moment and being aware of one’s thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment (Mindful). It involves observance and an accepting, non-judgmental disposition towards these observations (Greater Good Science Center). Mindfulness can be practised in a myriad of ways like mindfulness meditation, mindful eating, observing our thoughts and emotions, or simply trying to be fully present in the moment (Huffpost, Mindful).
Importance of Mindfulness
Why is mindfulness important and why should we try to practise it? In today's age of endless distractions and instant gratification, it can be easy to slip into a perpetually distracted state as losing focus becomes all too familiar to us. With countless notifications from our phones to eye-catching advertisements demanding our attention everywhere, it can be hard to buckle down and truly focus on a task at any given time.
Mindfulness helps bring our awareness or consciousness back to the present moment and allows us to focus on our emotions and thoughts. Furthermore, mindfulness has also been shown by numerous studies to be beneficial to one's mental and physical health in different ways.
Benefits to Mental Health
1. Reduced rumination
Mindfulness has been shown to reduce rumination, which is the process of dwelling on the same negative thoughts and is detrimental to mental health (American Psychological Association).
2. Stress reduction
Many studies have shown that mindfulness-based therapy and mindfulness meditation reduces stress. Focusing on the present moment can also reduce the level of cortisol, the stress hormone (American Psychological Association, Greater Good Science Center, Psych Central, Healthline).
3. Boosts to working memory
Mindfulness meditation can improve working memory, a cognitive system that temporarily stores and manages information required for reasoning and decision-making (American Psychological Association).
5. Less emotional reactivity
Helps people detach themselves from their emotions or emotional experiences, allowing them to focus more on cognitive tasks. Emotional reactivity keeps us slaves of our immediate thoughts and feelings, preventing us from acting in our long-term interests (American Psychological Association).
6. Regulates emotions and promotes emotional health
7. More cognitive flexibility
Mindfulness meditation can help to develop the skill of self-observation, and also activates the brain region associated with more adaptive responses to stressful or negative situations (American Psychological Association, Forbes).
8. Decreases cognitive decline from ageing
9. Reduces depression and anxiety
Mindfulness aids in preventing depression relapse and helps people cope with psychological pain. It also lowers stress levels which helps reduce anxiety (Greater Good Science Center, Psych Central, Healthline, Forbes).
Benefits to Physical Health
1. Reduces risk of heart diseases
2. Improves immunity
Mindfulness increases immune cells like T-cells, protein interleukin-8, and interleukin-10 (Greater Good Science Center).
3. Reduces cell aging
Mindfulness aids in increasing telomere activity which is related to cell aging (Greater Good Science Center).
4. Get better sleep
Mindfulness meditation significantly improves sleep quality e.g. those who meditate stay asleep longer and experience improved insomnia severity as it may help redirect or control racing thoughts and also help relax the body (Psych Central, Healthline).
5. Aids weight loss
6. Manage chronic pain
The Dark Side of Mindfulness
Despite the benefits that proponents of mindfulness claim, there exists a lesser-known dark side of mindfulness as well, which has only come to light in recent years.
On one end of the spectrum, meditation can increase the intensity of emotions, evident from the escalated activity in the insular cortex. Comparable with attention-enhancing substances like coffee or Ritalin, meditation works to enhance focus but can lead to panic and anxiety for some. Ultimately, one’s sensitivity to even minute changes could turn out devastating, and could result in full-on panic attacks as around 14% of meditators have reported in a Portuguese study (BBC).
A growing body of research can attest to the fact that these are not just isolated incidents. One study shows that “at least 25% of regular meditators have experienced adverse events, from panic attacks and depression to an unsettling sense of “dissociation”" (BBC).
Some meditators struggling with anxiety report that thoughts and feelings of anxiety can worsen after meditation. They describe getting flooded with feelings of failure or hopelessness during some meditation sessions (BBC).
Take for example Sanders who has suffered from incapacitating anxiety for years, but experienced intensified anxiety for weeks after meditating. She describes that her mind became preoccupied with the food she consumed and “for the first time ever, felt the need to purge”, and “ran for miles to silence the nervous thoughts swimming around [her] head (Daily Mail)”.
Rachel, a 34-year-old film-maker from London, reports that instead of feeling calm, thoughts would be racing in her mind and she would be doing things that were out of character and experiencing panic attacks, which even led to a blackout seizure (The Guardian).
Triggers psychiatric illnesses
Psychologist and researcher from Coventry University, Dr. Miguel Farias, warns that for approximately five per cent of people, mindfulness practices have a contradictory effect in heightening their anxiety or even giving rise to psychosis. He explains that many people possess childhood traumas or undiscovered mental health problems, which can be triggered as meditation forces them to sit alone with thoughts or dark memories they are unable to cope with.
Take for example Claire, who experienced panic attacks and a depressive breakdown after a three-day mindfulness course. The long hours of meditation brought to surface traumatic childhood memories and triggered issues she had once gotten over. Consequently, she spent three months in a psychiatric unit even though she was a highly driven individual from a competitive working environment (The Guardian).
On the other end of the spectrum, meditation can “blunt all emotions, both negative and positive”, resulting in dissociation in extreme cases e.g. for 8% of meditators in the Portuguese study (BBC).
Louise, a woman in her 50s who had been practising yoga for 20 years, experienced dissociation during a meditation retreat. The next day, she experienced numbness in her entire body and was unable to get out of bed, and was treated for psychotic depression for the next 15 years (The guardian mindfulness).
Being mindful of mindfulness
Quick fix for corporations
Businesses are concerned about the financial costs of issues like stress and anxiety but settle for a lower-cost quick fix rather than work on sources of stress like impractical workload (The Guardian). Offering relaxation classes/mindfulness retreats inevitably places the onus of mental health issues on the individual rather than examining workplace environmental factors.
Mindfulness practices like meditation do possess benefits, but may negatively affect some people as well. The danger is that not everyone is suitable for mindfulness, yet it is marketed as a one-size-fits-all solution. People well-versed in mindfulness might not be aware of the dangers associated with it and “wellness coaches” might not be fully equipped to help people if things get out of hand, as there is no professionally accredited training for mindfulness teachers yet (The Guardian).
Researchers state that if mindfulness is not the best choice for an individual, it would be best to choose from other activities also known to enhance overall well-being, as different techniques work distinctively for each individuals’ particular situation e.g. reading, exercising, etc. (The Guardian, BBC). It is important to keep in mind that mindfulness is just one tool in the box after all, not the whole toolkit itself.