Mindfulness: A cure-all
If you Google “mindfulness” you’ll find the ancient Buddhist practice has been prescribed for stress, concentration, introverts who want to be more social and academic performance, among other things.
Barnes and Noble has an inventory of over 2,000 mindfulness books while the Apple app store carries a myriad of mindfulness options for meditation on-the-go. Devotees swear by its life-changing potential, and its even being employed in schools and work places.
The principle has become increasingly trendy in recent years, as shown by an increasing interest in mindfulness products, yoga and Google searches.
Mind the Hype
A new study appropriately titled “Mind the Hype” argues it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. A team of researchers led by Dr. Nicholas T. Van Dam, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, argues there’s a lot of misinformation about mindfulness that’s supported by flaky science and overblown attention in the news.
“Misinformation … can potentially lead to people being harmed, cheated, disappointed, and/or disaffected.”
Is meditation dangerous?
Mindfulness in general is relatively understudied, said Yanli “Jeff” Lin, an MSU clinical psychology grad student and mindfulness expert, although some evidence suggests diving deep into the practice can be harmful for some.
“Weird things happen when you sit with yourself,” said Lin. “There’s not nearly enough work to understand what’s really going on, but [you] can develop a lot of crippling, literally crippling, effects … you’ll experience the full spectrum of emotions … some things you might not have ever experienced.”
Meditation can force people affected by post traumatic stress disorders, anxiety disorders and other afflictions into painful depths of the mind. The scope of the pain is difficult to assess and depends on duration of practice and the severity of psychiatric afflictions.
“Some of those things are pretty severe, [like] enduring perceptual difficulties, not being able to drive, really severe emotional problems, etc.,” said Lin.
More than 20 studies found meditation-induced episodes of “psychosis, mania, anxiety, panic, traumatic memory-re-experiencing and other forms of deterioration.”
One major finding in the Mind the Hype study is that previous mindfulness research has produced mixed results. Often, the results do not provide sufficient empirical proof in defense of its magic:
“In a recent review and meta-analysis … mindfulness based interventions were found to have a mixture of only moderate, low, or no efficacy depending on the disorder being treated … specifically, the efficacy of mindfulness was only moderate in reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression and pain … efficacy was low in reducing stress and improving quality of life.”
What mindfulness is, and what it is not
Mindfulness has a lot of hype – but what really is it? If you ask the news media, scientists and Buddhists, you will get a variety of answers, and it’s hard to research something you cannot define, argues Lin.
“‘Minfulness’ is an umbrella,” said Lin. “A lot of contemporary mindfulness based practices are based off of Buddhism, which is a religion with its own culture, so translating that into its own kind of definition is tricky … you’re going to get differences in how you define it and more important, how you study it.”
Mindfulness is not regulated by any authoritative body and there are no explicit guidelines about its safety. The National Institute of Health warns the practice could exacerbate current problems and advises prospective mindfulness practitioners to first consult their doctor.
Lin says overall, mindfulness does not pose health risks to the general public. In his work, he has seen mindfulness has decreased emotional reactivity. In an experiment, Lin asked one group to meditate, and then look at provocative images. Another control group did not practice mindfulness or meditation before looking at the pictures.
“People who meditate before looking at the pictures, irrespective of if they’re instructed to view the picture mindfully or not, show less emotional reactivity,” Lin said. “That tells me that for people who have not [meditated] before, maybe this practice is good. Being less reactive takes the edge off a little bit so you’re able to observe yourself. Having that distance gives you a chance to respond instead of react.”
The benefits of mindfulness can be observed after just one experience, although continuous meditation and practice increases any benefits. Paying attention to your actions and being deliberate is beneficial, said Lin.
““Hey, you should pay attention!” said Lin. That’s generally a really good thing. I think that gets overshadowed. You are a lot more automatic, a lot less conscious than what you experience. Being mindful is asking what’s going on right now, not just for being more productive or getting better grades, but understanding yourself.”