Mindfulness research shows great benefits

II  DEC 22 2016

Dr Richard Harrold

It’s difficult to go for any length of time without being informed of a new lifestyle modification that can make us happier, healthier and give us that much sought after “work/life balance”. But are these strategies likely to make a difference to our health or lifestyles in a significant way? With Yuletide rolling in more of us turn to new ways of dealing with stress and other problems. One such strategy which is increasingly popular, particularly within mental health, is Mindfulness.

What Is Mindfulness?

This is a millennia-old technique derived from Buddhist belief which utilises the concept of being entirely focussed on the present moment. These same basic principles are used today as a psychological therapy which encourages purposeful, complete and objective focus on the current moment – with little or no distraction.It is currently recommended in NICE guidance for depression in adults for relapse prevention. There has been a significant increase in publication rates regarding Mindfulness related psychological therapies recently which may have contributed to its popularity.

Multiple studies have shown that a multitude of benefits can be derived from mindfulness These can be generally split into emotional benefits, physical benefits and interpersonal benefits. Though there are many studies detailing the benefits there are few studies looking into possible drawbacks of mindfulness.

Emotional Health

Mindfulness has demonstrated a positive impact on an individual’s emotional and psychological health. It has been shown to do this by several methods. These include “perceptual shift”, “situational awareness” & “emotional regulation” amongst others. Emotional regulation relates to the phenomenon where, after engaging in mindfulness, individuals are better able to identify negative mood states, and negative feelings, and process these more effectively. Imaging studies have shown that structural brain changes can occur with mindfulness which lead to increased emotional regulation and improved memory and learning capacity.

Situational awareness is an idea that mindfulness leads to an increased appreciation of the world around us at a current time and therefore allows more effective communication and leads to increased productivity and improvements in decision making. The technique also reduce rates of depression and anxiety significantly in clinical trials as well as enhancing psychological flexibility in those with mild to moderate depressive illness.It has also been shown to improve outcomes in work with addiction and grief. Another study has shown it is suitable for preventative as well as treatment measures – stating it may be used as a universal preventative for mental health if utilised routinely

Inter-personal Relationships

There are also benefits documented regarding an individual’s relationships and inter-personal communication. It is reported that the use of mindfulness techniques can improve people’s satisfaction with their relationships and also protect individuals against emotionally stressful effects of relationship conflict It has also been shown to improve how people react to relationship stress – this can too often be a negative reaction but the use of mindfulness has been shown to improve the rates of constructive responses

Physical Health

Many benefits have been documented in literature of physical health benefits of mindfulness. This includes factors such as improved immune function and has also shown efficacy in conditions with strong physical manifestations – including chronic pain management, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and lower back pain.

Possible downsides

Though the majority of studies have documented comprehensively the benefits to be drawn from the practice of mindfulness, others have published reports on the negative aspects. One meta-analysis from 2009 grouped the negative outcomes of mindfulness into 3 groups – mental, physical and spiritual. The effects discussed sound alarming initially – including psychosis, increased seizure frequency in epilepsy, detachment of thoughts and religious delusions in some cases.

An important distinction is made however – many of these were identified in pure mindfulness meditation retreats or similar, which are very different (and more intense) than the day to day practice of mindfulness advocated by NICE and other healthcare institutions to treat mental illness. As such they recommend keeping these in mind for research purposes, but are low risk for the use of mindfulness-based techniques, as practiced in the NHS.

Overall there appear to be many positive aspects to mindfulness. The adverse effects appear to be related to an intense use of mindfulness meditation rather than mindfulness being used as one aspect amongst many methods of achieving a healthy mind.

If you want to know more about mindfulness please see your GP or read more here: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/pages/mindfulness.aspx.
Any opinions above are the author's alone and may not represent those of the NHS or Mind and Medicine. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing.  All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of sample surveyed. Online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice.

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