Mindfulness, rooted in ancient spiritual tradition, has become more conventionally popular and is now a health buzzword: it is touted to be the self-help answer to reducing stress, anxiety and other conditions, as well as the way to change and improve our brains. But is this so?

Mindfulness dates back thousands of years and is rooted in religious and secular practices. It is a type of meditation that varies in how it is practiced, but usually it involves focusing on the present moment or on one of the senses e.g. taste/ sight. More and more articles, podcasts, infographics, and apps which promote the benefits and teach us how to practice mindfulness, are emerging. 

Reported brain and mental benefits of mindfulness include: reduced anxiety, depression, stress, substance abuse, eating disorders, and chronic pain; improved resilience, memory, and emotional regulation; and better sleep; amongst many other things. Some of these benefits are from anecdotal accounts and others have emerged through research. 

“We did the mindful breathing and after some time… it worked!” Remarked Frances, a borderline personality disorder patient with anxiety and depression, to the NHS Trust. “I was all in after that, it calmed me down… it reduced my heart rate and I’d be aware of all the physical symptoms I was experiencing with the anxiety and… it just stopped my head from going a hundred miles an hour.”

A meta-analysis (a review of many studies) showed that mindfulness based therapy was in fact effective for stress, anxiety and depression; but the studies were often of poor quality and had a wide range in results, making it less reliable. 

Another study, which looked at those who practiced mindfulness based stress reduction over 8 weeks, showed reduced stress as well as structural changes in the grey matter of brain areas that correspond with memory, learning, self-awareness and emotional regulation, amongst others. However, the study did not look at changes in meditators’ brains over time (e.g. with periodic MRI scans) or compare them with a control (changes in non-meditators’ brains over time)— therefore, it is difficult to prove a causal link between mindfulness and these outcomes. More larger, randomised studies that make these comparisons will be extremely useful going forward.

The current body of research on mindfulness is also difficult to interpret because 1) The definition of mindfulness practices and what they entail is inconsistent; and 2) There is often publication bias: meaning mostly only studies showing benefits have been published and not the studies that don’t show much benefit. This skews our idea of it. 

Lastly, we also have to look at the harms of an intervention before we encourage its widespread use or practice. Unfortunately, mindfulness has been shown to cause worsening of mental health symptoms for certain people, like those with PTSD, so it is important to keep in mind that while it can potentially benefit many people, it will not be for everyone. 

Despite the limited or varied studies, the research on mindfulness and its impact on brain and mental health is still incredibly promising and has hopeful implications for the future of psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience. Many of us will gain something positive from practicing a few minutes of mindfulness a day and there are many videos, apps and teachers out there to help us with this. However, it is important to remember that it is just an extra tool to try, and it should not replace other healthcare interventions or result in delayed treatment with a health professional.