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Mindfulness has surged in popularity over the last decade, with it being practiced in schools, hospitals, prisons and businesses. Not to mention the boom in books, apps, articles and videos, designed to help people incorporate mindfulness in their day-to-day lives. Many claim that practicing mindfulness is beneficial for our mental health, but is this true? Is there any evidence to back up this mindfulness-hype?

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a state of mind that involves non-judgemental awareness of the present moment. An easy way to understand mindfulness is to consider its opposing state, mindlessness. Whereas being “mindless” means doing things without paying attention (operating on “auto-pilot”), being “mindful” means paying careful attention to the present moment, such as focusing on the sounds of a busy street or noticing upsetting thoughts without reacting to them.

The theory behind mindfulness is that by paying close attention to our surroundings, we can learn to appreciate and enjoy the world around us. And by paying close, non-judgemental attention to our thoughts, we being to notice how they influence the way we feel and what we do. In simple terms, by being mindful, we learn to let go of upsetting thoughts, and as a result, we no longer feel upset.

We all vary in how mindful we are in our day-to-day lives. But we can increase our propensity for mindfulness through practice. The most common way of practicing mindfulness is through meditation, which can be done alone with the help of books or mobile phone apps, or in instructor-led groups.

Mindfulness can be practiced daily in short bursts at home, or intensely over a period of days, weeks or months, at mindfulness retreats. Mindfulness has also been integrated into some therapeutic approaches, such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. But which of these methods, if any, are actually useful?

What is the evidence for mindfulness?

Lots of research has been conducted into the effects of mindfulness on mental health. This research can be difficult to interpret, due to the many different ways that mindfulness can be practiced. Here, we have provided a short summary of the available evidence.

The best-documented benefits of mindfulness are in preventing relapse in depression. A large-scale, high-quality study found that mindfulness-based-cognitive therapy is as as effective as medication for preventing depressive relapse (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19045965). As a result of such evidence, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is recommended by NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) for individuals who have had three or more depressive relapses (https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg90/chapter/1-guidance?unlid=1368490820159920020).

Mindfulness-based therapies not only appear to be useful for relapse prevention, but also in reducing acute symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2848393/ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23796855). Whether mindfulness-based therapies are superior to other widely used therapies (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy) remains unclear.

Although there is reason to believe that mindfulness may be effective for improving other conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD – http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-012-0137-y) there is currently very little evidence available to support such ideas.

Despite the claims of many books and mobile phone apps, it is less clear how effective self-taught, short-term mindfulness practices may be. It is likely that such practices may be more suited to people who are not currently experiencing depression or anxiety, as tailored therapy would be more appropriate for such individuals (http://www.mindful.org/trouble-mindfulness-apps/). More research is needed in this area.

Where can I find out more?

If you’d like to find out more about mindfulness then the NHS website may be a good place to start: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/pages/mindfulness.aspx

To keep up to date with mindfulness research, then visit: https://goamra.org/

Connor Heapy
Writer for Cognitive Practice
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