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Mindfulness training can boost well-being, but is not always the best option

A new study from the University of Cambridge has found that mindfulness training is not always the most effective strategy to improve mental health. The researchers confirmed that mindfulness can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression in most, but not all, non-clinical settings.

Mindfulness is generally defined as being aware of what is happening in the moment, and being present in that moment without interpretation or judgement. This practice has become increasingly popular for reducing stress and anxiety.

In the UK, the National Health Service offers mindfulness training to help treat mental health issues such as depression. However, most people who practice mindfulness are taught in community settings such as universities or private courses. 

Worldwide, randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have been conducted to assess the potential mental health benefits of mindfulness training, but the results are inconsistent. The Cambridge team analyzed the findings of 136 relevant trials, which involved a total of 11,605 participants between the ages 18 and 73 from 29 countries.

The data showed that in most community settings, mindfulness training effectively reduced anxiety, depression, and stress and increased well-being. On the other hand, in more than one in 20 trials settings, mindfulness-based programs did not necessarily improve mental health outcomes.

“For the average person and setting, practicing mindfulness appears to be better than doing nothing for improving our mental health, particularly when it comes to depression, anxiety and psychological distress – but we shouldn’t assume that it works for everyone, everywhere,” said study first author Dr. Julieta Galante.

“Mindfulness training in the community needs to be implemented with care. Community mindfulness courses should be just one option among others, and the range of effects should be researched as courses are implemented in new settings. The courses that work best may be those aimed at people who are most stressed or in stressful situations, for example health workers, as they appear to see the biggest benefit.”

When compared to other “feel good” practices such as exercise, mindfulness training was neither more nor less beneficial. 

“While mindfulness is often better than taking no action, we found that there may be other effective ways of improving our mental health and well-being, such as exercise,” said Professor Peter Jones. “In many cases, these may prove to be more suitable alternatives if they are more effective, culturally more acceptable or are more feasible or cost effective to implement. The good news is that there are now more options.”

The techniques and frameworks taught in mindfulness have diverse backgrounds, ranging from early Buddhist psychology and meditation to cognitive neuroscience.

“If the effects of online mindfulness courses vary as widely according to the setting as their offline counterparts, then the lack of human support they offer could cause potential problems,” said Dr. Galante. “We need more research before we can be confident about their effectiveness and safety.”

The study is published in the journal PLOS Medicine.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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