Mindfulness is the zeitgeist that never seems to lose its moment; it’s everywhere.
That’s probably because the benefits of, say, a weeks-long guided course are well documented: Lowered stress, anxiety reduction and pain relief.
But how effective is mindfulness when it’s practised via an app, or in a few minutes during a work lunch break?
RN’s Life Matters asked two experts their thoughts – and disagreement ensued.
Are we talking about the same thing?
Nicholas Van Dam, a senior lecturer in psychological sciences at the University of Melbourne, says there’s “reasonably good evidence” that mindfulness “is probably helpful for a lot of people”.
But he says the word gets misused, and is often applied to different things – be it meditation, breathing exercises, a yoga class, a retreat or a guided course.
“We throw this term around,” he says, and when people discuss the benefits “they are not always talking about the same thing”.
That means people might enter mindfulness practice expecting one thing, and getting something quite different.
Dr Van Dam takes issue with some of “the hype” surrounding the practice, and the way some “people are selling and promoting it”.
“They are implying that you can get the same benefits from a few minutes or a short, short course as you could from a long program or a structured program,” he says.
Commercialisation of mindfulness – is it that bad?
Craig Hassed, a mindfulness expert and senior lecturer from Monash University, agrees mindfulness can mean different things to different people.
But he says its flexibility is a strength.
Mindfulness can be “an attentional practice”, a “practice in emotional regulation” or “an exercise in greater awareness or developing compassion”, he says.
“There are different ways of delivering mindfulness … but I don’t see that as necessarily a problem,” he says.
Dr Van Dam does.
He argues that ambiguity around the term enables mindfulness services to misrepresent what they can offer and, for those in a vulnerable state, that could have potentially damaging consequences.
Doing more harm than good?
Dr Van Dam says for some people engaging in mindfulness can carry a risk of serious side effects – including anxiety attacks, psychotic breaks or suicidal ideation.
“It can exacerbate or lead to new depressive episodes or worsening of existing depressive episodes,” he says.
“For people with trauma histories it can make things worse in terms of the presentation clinically.”
But Dr Hassed believes such “adverse events” are uncommon.
It’s far more likely, he says, that a person would just be irritated by how difficult mindfulness practice can be.
“The mind wanders. They might notice more of the stress or tension that’s in the background that they’re [otherwise] not noticing,” Dr Hassed says.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call that adverse events. It comes with the territory in learning how to apply mindfulness.”
Mindfulness at work
Mindfulness techniques are not just used by people in the home. Increasingly, they are being used by workplaces to help staff manage stress.
Dr Hassed says there is “a large body of literature” to show how they can genuinely help people.
Mindfulness in the workplace, he argues, can be of benefit by enabling someone to “dip their toe into a practical experience of it”.
People can then implement the strategies more extensively outside of work.
“Many people will say, ‘I punctuate my day with lots of … little one-minute practices here or there’,” he explains.
“For example, ‘I turn off the car when I get home, I just have a half-minute to settle myself, to just be present, so that when I walk into the house I’m present to the kids, I’m present to the partner, and engaged and not taking the baggage from a day’s work into the home’,” Dr Hassed says.
“So people will, I think, apply it outside of work if they feel that there’s value for them.”
Dr Van Dam agrees mindfulness has the potential to create better work environments “where people are happier and not taking their work home with them”.
But he’s concerned that services offering mindfulness training at work might not “have the appropriate skills or training” to recognise if the practice creates issues for an individual.
“If there is more going on for that individual and if they probably should step out or not do that training” it may go unnoticed, he says.
He also warns it’s common for apps and services to “conflate the different types of evidence”.
For example, he says, they might use evidence from weeks-long, structured courses that entail a lot of face-to-face practice and home meditation practice, to say – simply and without context – that “mindfulness meditation practice changes the brain”.
Dr Van Dam says some claim “a few minutes a day” or a short course can lead to the same changes “as a long program or a structured program”.
‘A desperate need to explore this idea’
One thing both experts agree on is the need for further research in the field of mindfulness.
“I think there’s a desperate need to explore this idea that apps can actually make a substitute for can be substituted for face-to-face or in-person meditation instruction,” Dr Van Dam says.
“We really need to know, is this actually a substitute or maybe is it an augmentative tool?”
While Dr Hassed says “various online programs and apps can have benefits in certain ways”, he too would like to see more academic attention directed the way of mindfulness practices.
“Always, I think, you need more research to see exactly how much it helps and in what sorts of ways,” he says.