Mindfulness – Does it work?

Meditation has been around for a long time, and tends to conjure images of San Francisco in the sixties or zen monks. But it’s been rebranded, repackaged, and is doing pretty serious business right now under the umbrella of “Mindfulness”. I’ve seen many facebook threads and twitter conversations where someone is divulging their horrible experience of depression, anxiety, grief, stress etc, where some well-meaning acquaintance says “Ooooh mindfulness is all you need. I know a great class. You don’t need to see a doctor. I can lend you a tape. They also doing colouring books!” It’s such a nice idea. Just be chilled out and count your breaths and be in the moment and poof! All symptoms gone. Self-actualisation achieved! In reality, the practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing, and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future. But does it actually work?
The problem with testing of “successful” meditation is that it’s not the easiest thing to measure. As is the case for a number of other alternative therapies, much of the evidence to support the effectiveness of meditation in promoting mental or physical health isn’t quite up to scratch. Why? Firstly, many studies don’t include a good control treatment to compare with meditation. Secondly, the people most likely to volunteer for a meditation study are often already sold on meditation’s benefits and so are more likely to report positive effects – confirmation bias is at play.
However, when researchers from Johns Hopkins University sifted through nearly 19,000 meditation studies, they found 47 trials that addressed those issues and met their criteria for well-designed scientific studies. The results suggest that mindfulness meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain. (Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being; A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis, March 2014). The results of this research involved “small to moderate effect of mindfulness and mantra meditation techniques in reducing emotional symptoms (e.g, anxiety, depression, and stress) and improving physical symptoms (e.g, pain)”.
So do we bother with mindfulness if the changes it makes are sometimes only small to moderate? I think so. Because here’s what I’ve found about the majority of mental health issues discussed above. Extremely often, it’s not about ‘curing’; it’s about managing. If there were a magic pill, or exercise, that makes “it” go away, then I’d be (very gladly) out of a job. The key to managing symptoms is finding the combinations that work for you, and if mindfulness is one of those things, then why not give it a try? The evidence suggests that it is helpful for many.

When it comes to positively impacting the most common mental health issues, such as anxiety disorders and/or depression, medication alone can be beneficial, and therapy alone can be beneficial. But the empirical evidence shows time and time again that the two in tandem have the highest success rate.

However, studies like this also show that there is benefit in adding other positive lifestyle changes to our day-to-day. Whether it be meditation and mindfulness, dietary changes,  exercise, yoga, group counselling, gratitude journaling or anything else (or ALL of the above) is for each individual to figure out.  It can take time, which can undeniably  become frustrating and disheartening, but trial and error is often a part of a journey to wellness.

It can be hard work to find out what helps you. But there are multiple techniques for living, particularly with ill mental health. Sometimes the most powerful tool is acceptance: “This is something I struggle with at times, and that is COMPLETELY OK”. I often find that the time and energy people spend chasing a “cure” and not finding it, can create as much, if not more, anxiety than the original health issue. A sense of failure that “I’m still not fixed”, no matter how many different approaches and years of suffering, can become the biggest stressor and disappointment there is. If you wake up each day fighting some form of mental illness, then you are a warrior. And if you find something (healthy), or a combination of things that helps you cope, then I say go for it. (But if you’d rather have a duvet day sometimes, then you can do that too. You don’t have to fight every day – it’s exhausting and that’s ok!).
The mindset of struggling with mental illness is often one of “it’s all in your head”, “just push through”, “you’re not trying hard enough”, “man up”. And these messages, whether from ourselves, our family or our friends, are often a greater challenge than the most debilitating of illnesses.
I tried a bit of mindfulness, but it’s just not something I’m very good at setting time aside for as much as I would like. I very much enjoyed it though, and I gained some great insight from a few particular practitioners and podcasts. I took the parts that worked for me, and left the rest.

The one thing that has been most beneficial in my experience of mindfulness is the idea of self-compassion. Treat yourself with love and kindness. The unending chase to perfect mental health is tiring, because there is no finish line.  Life will always throw things our way, and if we suffer with depression, anxiety, mood disorders or personality disorders, then we’ve got a few extra obstacles to overcome.   So be gentle, be kind, and be mindful of how you talk to yourself and about yourself.

If you would like to give mindfulness a try, here are my suggestions of where to start.

Tara Brach http://www.tarabrach.com
She has lots of free meditations and talks on her website, and I really like that she is a qualified psychologist as well as a practicing Buddhist, and combines modern psych science with Eastern philosophies.

Books by Thich Nhat Hahn
He’s pretty much the go-to Mindfulness master, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist. He’s published over 100 books and they’re simple and lovely. Here’s a short meditation from his book Being Peace: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.”
There are lots of classes and retreats around the country, just give mindfulness and your location a google


What I do ( This is just what I find personally helps my particular triggers, as the full on retreat or long classes isn’t my thing right now).

Read Self Compassion by Kristen Neff. It’s excellent.  Here’s her TED talk. Give yourself this 20 mins (trust me on this one):


I also use the Buddhify app. I prefer it to the Headspace one as I find it more soothing and guided, but it’s all about personal preference. It’s not free, it’s about €2.50 or so as a one-off payment, but it’s gotten  me through some stressful or seemingly overwhelming moments, such as being stuck in busy crowds, airports, etc.



If you have any thoughts or anecdotes on practicing mindfulness, or how it has worked for you, please do drop a comment

🙂 Bébhinn

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