In the past, the word meditation was associated with Tibetan monks chanting on isolated mountaintops. But nowadays, it seems that everyone and their cat are espousing the benefits of the mindfulness-based practice. However, instead of aiming to achieve spiritual enlightenment, modern meditation is far more concerned with the health benefits, both mental and physical. With claims such as decreased anxiety and depression, boosted immune systems and even being linked to a longer life span, it all sounds too good to be true. Is this all just pseudo-science mumbo-jumbo, or have the Tibetan monks really been sitting on a panacea for human health problems all this time? Mindfulness meditation is the practice of focusing on the present moment, instead of deliberating over past failures, or worrying about future problems. It makes sense that something like this could improve mental health, especially in modern Western society, where there are so many competing calls for our attention. Numerous studies have found that this process of stopping and refocusing your attention on the present, whether that’s through breathing, focusing on bodily sensations or simply by mindfully enjoying the food you’re eating, leads to decreased rumination and worry. This in turn is linked to decreased anxiety and depression.
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As well as being beneficial for our mental wellbeing, mindfulness has been shown to have numerous physical health benefits as well. Recently, researchers at Coventry University investigated the effects of mind-body interventions on gene activity. Remarkably, they found that for participants who practiced mind-body interventions such as mindfulness, gene activity was reduced in genes related to inflammation. This is the opposite effect of chronic stress. Not only does this reinforce the notion that mindfulness reduces stress, it also suggests that practicing mind-body interventions may even reduce the risk of physical inflammation-related disorders such as arthritis and asthma. Practicing mindfulness meditation will not only lead you to a happier and healthier life, it may also lead you toward a longer one. Researchers at the University of California showed that participants who had attended a three-month meditation retreat had greater levels of an enzyme that builds up telomeres than a control group. Telomeres are regions of DNA at the end of chromosomes that get shorter every time a cell divides. The length of telomeres is related to ageing and longevity, so it appears that mindfulness could be linked to a longer life span. Clearly, meditation has its benefits. But, like many things that seem too good to be true, it may also have a dark side. For some people, instead of leading to peace and enlightenment, mindfulness meditation can lead to panic, depression or even psychosis. According to a study conducted by David Shapiro at the University of California, 7% of people who have tried mindfulness meditation reported anxiety, depression, pain, or panic. There is little published research on these potential negative effects of mindfulness, perhaps because of its ‘trending’ status at the moment, publication bias towards studies with positive results, or simply because those who experience these negative effects simply stop with practice and don’t report it.
However, there are some potential explanations as to why some people have such negative experiences. Meditation involves sitting with and accepting your own thoughts and feelings, positive or negative. This can be sometimes difficult for even mentally healthy people, so for people who are already suffering with poor mental health or negative feelings, this could potentially make things worse. Similarly, for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mindfulness can be difficult as traumatic memories can rise to the surface. Nonetheless, the potential negative effects of mindfulness need not put us off. It may simply be a case of weighing up the risks versus the rewards. Speaking to the Guardian in 2016, Floridan Ruths, a mindfulness researcher and a practicing psychologist, compared the cost-benefit calculations of meditation to how we think about exercise. “If we exercise, we live longer, we’re slimmer, we’ve got less risk of dementia, we’re happier and less anxious,” he said. “People don’t talk about the fact that when you exercise, you are at a natural risk of injuring yourself.” And as with exercise, some people are unable to exercise due to a pre-existing condition, or may have a higher risk of injury. Another potential explanation as to why some people have negative experiences meditating is due to poor practice, whether that’
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s down to a lack of information on the correct ways to meditate or due to a poor teacher. Indeed, unlike other forms of therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), there is no professionally accredited training for mindfulness teachers, and anyone can call themselves a mindfulness coach. This may have led to the ‘pseudo-science’ perception of mindfulness. Additionally, many studies that have found positive effects of mindfulness only compared the effects of mindfulness to ‘treatment as usual’ (TAU), such as seeing a GP, or to waiting list controls. This makes it unclear as to whether the positive effects of mindfulness are simply due to placebo, spending more time with a therapist and becoming more aware of emotions, or whether there is indeed an ‘active component’ of mindfulness that specifically causes the observed benefits. So, while it seems like mindfulness meditation does have positive effects, a lot more research needs to be done. It is still unclear as to how long lasting the effects of mindfulness are, and clearly, not everyone will benefit. It is also unclear as to the mechanism of action of mindfulness and how it works in comparison to other forms of therapy such as CBT or talking therapy. Obviously, what mindfulness does have is that is quick and cheap, and can be done by anyone at any time. Also, unlike other forms of therapy that require a diagnosis before being able to be accessed on the NHS, mindfulness can also be done to ‘maintain’ mental health, hopefully avoiding the necessity of using other mental health services.