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Does mindfulness work?

The following article is written by happiness expert and psychologist Dr Melissa Weinberg from Deakin University’s School of Psychology.

In the second of this two-part series on mindfulness, I’ll explore the evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness and consider some of the theoretical reasons why mindfulness could be helpful for some people.

Wondering about wandering

When Harvard researchers Killingsworth and Gilbert released their 2010 paper on the links between mindfulness and mood, many were led to believe that, as the title claimed: A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The paper triggered huge support for mindfulness practice as a universal, one-size-fits-all solution to calm the unhappy mind. After all, the results showed that mind-wandering occurred at a rate of about 47%! That’s almost half the time!

Associations between mood and mind-wandering in the study were not causal, and so any claims that mind-wandering leads to unhappiness (or vice versa) are completely unfounded.

But my mind wonders: ‘Why is it so strange to think that our mind might wander?’

As human beings, we are shaped by experiences from our past, and we are evolutionarily wired to think about the future – we need to stay motivated, plan ahead, and think about what will happen next in order to live effectively. In fact, most of the time we do things so that we can achieve some benefit at a future time – we go to work so that we can put food on the table, we drink coffee so that we will feel more awake after, we exercise so that we won’t put on weight. These are all future-oriented actions, and for good reason.

If anything, it’s surprising to me that we can even spend 50% of our time actually engaged in whatever it is we’re doing.

That said, there are certainly times when it can be beneficial to be focused in the present moment. I work with athletes, and if I’ve got an athlete whose mind is wandering when they’re about to perform a physically demanding task (sometimes, their mind wanders in the middle of the task), or execute an action that requires accuracy, thinking about the outcome of their performance can hold them back from playing or performing at their best.

'As human beings, we are shaped by experiences from our past, and we are evolutionarily wired to think about the future – we need to stay motivated, plan ahead, and think about what will happen next in order to live effectively.'

Dr Melissa Weinberg,
Deakin University

Mindfulness – theory and evidence

A recent study by Van Dam et al. presented a critical review of the evidence-base for mindfulness, and found it to be less than convincing. According to the authors, quality research into the effectiveness of mindfulness has been hampered by a lack of uniform definition and thus understanding of what the practice involves. So why all the hype around mindfulness?

Well, there are a number of theoretical reasons as to why mindfulness could be effective as a strategy to reduce anxiety. Four such reasons are presented below:

1. The neuroscientific perspective

When your brain perceives threat, the amygdalae initiates a response to ensure survival. In doing so, your body prepares to either fight the threat head on, or run away from it as fast as it possibly can. One of the first physiological changes involves an increased heart rate. By engaging in mindful breathing (or just deep breathing), you can consciously slow down your heart rate, and restore a sense of calm to the areas of the brain working to ensure your survival.

2. Control

One of the most frightening aspects of anxiety is the feeling that you’re not in control. By focusing on your breathing and engaging in mindfulness, you can find comfort and safety in having control over something, even if it is just your heart rate.

3. Focus on the present

For many with anxiety, distress is tied to memories from the past, or uncertainty about the future. By shifting the focus to the present moment, attention is deflected away from the past or future, and thus away from the triggers and activating sources of anxiety.

4. Challenging unhelpful thoughts

By practicing mindfulness, you are able to notice that you are calm, in control, and safe, even if only for a few minutes at a time. This practice can help to falsify unhelpful thoughts like ‘I’m always in pain’ or, ‘I can never have a few moments to myself.

Should we all be more mindful?

At this stage, the answer is not so prescriptive. Some research has demonstrated that dispositional mindfulness is associated with actual changes in parts of the brain responsible for the stress response, including a reduction in the size of the amygdalae. Whilst some may be excited by that thought, I am still unclear whether we should all be striving to change our brain. I wonder what other parts are increasing to compensate for the amygdalae shrinking. It is perhaps too early to tell.

Other studies have shown that mindful attention is associated with lower scores on measures of depression and anxiety, and higher scores on self-esteem and positive mood. Importantly, the type of mindfulness assessed in these studies is not the meditative type of mindfulness, but rather a state of being engaged and present in whatever it is that you’re doing. Put simply, you don’t need to be sitting like a Buddhist monk for 30 minutes a day to derive the benefits of mindfulness. But if you’re going about your ordinary day in an intentionally mindful way you’re more likely to experience higher levels of wellbeing.

Nevertheless, as current research stands, the empirical evidence in support of mindfulness remains inconclusive, and prescribing 10 minutes of mindfulness to people who do not need it is akin to prescribing medication to a person who isn’t sick. Might it be helpful later down the track? Perhaps. Can we ever know without conducting an ethically-questionable study that purposely elicits anxiety and distress in individuals who either do or do not regularly practice mindfulness? No.

From a therapeutic perspective, mindfulness will no doubt soon find its way into the pile of psychological strategies that may be helpful for certain people under certain conditions, much like other popular techniques like cognitive-behavioural therapy, schema therapy, or solution-focused therapy. Ultimately, however, it is the relationship that is cultivated between a therapist and client that will more reliably predict positive outcomes.

If you haven’t already, check out Melissa Weinberg’s first article on mindfulness.

Interested in learning more about how the mind works? Check out Deakin’s range of psychology courses. 

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Dr Melissa Weinberg
Dr Melissa Weinberg

Honorary Fellow, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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