Is Mindfulness Good Medicine?

Amidst claims that mindfulness could be harmful for some, new research emerges on how mindfulness might prevent relapses into depression and reduce healthcare visits.

Photo by Liza Matthews

There’s no doubt that mindfulness’ popularity has grown rapidly in the past year—but there are signs that the honeymoon phase is over. Making minor headlines is the work of Willoughby Britton, psychiatrist and mindfulness practitioner, who researches “difficult or challenging mind states” among advanced meditators and scholars that can occur as a result of intense meditation practice.

Now that the avalanche of media hype on mindfulness research and practice is coming to an end, we’re beginning to get a more tempered view.

Meditation is not all calm and peace. Mental material can come up that can be uncomfortable or need to be addressed.

Britton spoke generally with Mindful about how mindfulness has been marketed in this country as a “warm bath,” when in actuality, you have to deal with whatever comes up in the mind.

“A lot of psychological material is going to come up and be processed. Old resentments, wounds, that kind of thing,” says Britton, “But also some traumatic material if people have a trauma history, it can come up and need additional support or even therapy.”

Ed Halliwell, mindfulness teacher and author of The Mindful Manifesto, admits that meditation can be an emotional rollercoaster. “Mindfulness has a great many benefits,” Halliwell writes, but he takes issue with mindfulness being touted as a cure-all. At the same time, there’s an all-or-nothing mentality brewing around the adoption of mindfulness practices, and Halliwell asks: “Does something beneficial have to be delivered perfectly—and to bring about a perfect world—before we will accept it as worthwhile?”

Elisha Goldstein, clinical psychologist and mindfulness teacher, noted that it’s not a question of whether mindfulness is harmful or not, it’s where you’re getting that mindfulness training from. “It comes down to an education on mindfulness (and a variety of factors that it represents) and finding an experienced teacher as a guide to meet the practitioner where they are at.”

Research is ongoing

Research on mindfulness and depression is still preliminary, but there are promising indicators.

Scientific American surveyed findings and some of the key controversies regarding the application of mindfulness for depression and anxiety, and concluded:

When it comes to treating diagnosed mental disorders, the evidence that mindfulness helps is decidedly mixed, with the strongest data pointing toward its ability to reduce clinical depression and prevent relapses.

In particular, new research has emerged indicating that an 8-week mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) program might reduce the risk of relapses into depression. Study authors identified that mindfulness helped in the following ways:

• MBCT allowed people to be more intentionally aware of the present moment, which gave them space to pause before reacting automatically to others,

• Bringing mindful awareness to uncomfortable experiences helped people to approach situations that they would previously avoid, which fostered self-confidence and assertiveness, and

• Study participants also described having more energy, feeling less overwhelmed by negative emotion, and being in a better position to cope with and support others.

On a related note, another piece of research reported that frequent health service users who received MBCT therapy showed a significant reducation in non-mental health care visits over a one-year period.

“We speculate that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy has elements that could help people who are high health-care utilizers manage their distress without needing to go to a doctor,” says Dr. Paul Kurdyak, lead author and Director of Health Systems Research at Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and Lead of the Mental Health and Addictions Research Program at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES).