Mindfulness is all the rage when it comes to boosting mental health, but new research suggests that it may not help everyone equally.
Practicing mindfulness meditation -- which involves paying close attention to what you are feeling in the moment -- may be better than doing nothing at all to improve anxiety, depression or lower stress, but it is not a cure-all and may not be any better than other practices aimed at improving mental health and well-being, such as exercise, said study author Julieta Galante. She's a research associate in the department of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
To arrive at that conclusion, Galante and her colleagues reviewed data from 136 studies on mindfulness training for stress, anxiety, depression and overall well-being that took place in non-medical community settings (such as workplaces, universities, community centers or private studios). These trials included more than 11,600 participants, aged 18 to 73, from 29 countries.
Mindfulness reduced anxiety, depression and stress, and increased well-being when compared to doing nothing, the study showed. But in more than one in 20 studies in the analysis, mindfulness meditation didn't produce any benefits.
Not all mindfulness programs are created equally, Galante noted. Differences in how they are taught, where they are taught, who teaches them, and who they are targeted to likely plays a big role in how helpful they are. There are also lots of types of mindfulness practices out there.
The programs aimed at folks who are stressed out or at higher risk of being stressed, such as health care workers, seemed to be the most beneficial in the new study.
"It may be more likely that mindfulness teachers in these contexts are also mental health therapists," Galante said.
What's more, mindfulness courses that included some physical activity as part of the program were more helpful than those that did not, she said. "This makes sense, given that physical activity brings mental health benefits in its own right," she noted.
Many apps and online courses offer mindfulness training, and these gained traction during COVID-19 lockdowns. While not included in the new study, these classes and the benefits they provide likely vary as widely as in-person mindfulness programs, Galante said. To find as much peace and tranquility as possible from mindfulness, "I would try to find an online course with as much human support as possible in some shape or form, for example through video calls," she suggested.
The study had some limitations due to the low quality of trials included in the analysis, Galante said. Many participants stopped attending mindfulness courses in some of these studies, and they were not asked why or tracked, she explained.
The findings were published online Jan. 11 in the journal PLOS Medicine.
Neda Gould, director of the Mindfulness Program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, urged caution in interpreting the findings.
"It doesn't mean that mindfulness isn't helpful," Gould stressed. "We have tons of research pointing to how it can help with anxiety, stress, blood pressure, pain and other concerns, but we can't make blanket statements that these programs are helpful for every person in every situation."
More research is needed to provide specific recommendations on who can derive the greatest benefits from mindfulness, Gould said.
Robert Roeser, professor of care, compassion and human development at Penn State University, agreed. "We are getting humbler around the hype of mindfulness," he said. "It's not a panacea for all people for all things."
On a positive note, mindfulness is relatively risk-free, Gould added. "If you are feeling stressed out, it's a good place to start and see if you derive any benefits," she said.
Gould suggested that anyone who is interested should consider an online course to explore mindfulness. "The benefits of doing an actual program is that there is a teacher who is certified or qualified to lead the course and it has structure," she explained
But "if your stress, anxiety or depression is getting in the way of your life, see a therapist or mental health care professional to make sure you are doing all that you can to feel better," she advised.
UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center offers classes and other information on incorporating mindfulness into your life.
SOURCES: Julieta Galante, research associate, department of psychiatry, University of Cambridge, U.K.; Neda Gould, clinical psychologist, director, Mindfulness Program, Johns Hopkins, Baltimore; Robert Roeser, Bennett Pierce professor of care, compassion and human development, Penn State University, University Park, Penn.; PLOS Medicine, Jan. 11, 2021, online