A recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated that 8-week mindfulness programs (probably mostly mindfulness-based stress reduction) have a moderate positive effect on anxiety, depression, and pain, and a small positive effect on stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life. The study caused a spike in the buzz about mindfulness, prompting secondary articles speculating about meditation as a replacement for antidepressant medication.
How does mindfulness decrease anxiety and depression, reduce stress and distress, and improve quality of life?
1) Increased focus on the present. Anxiety is almost always related to the future, and depression is frequently related to the past. Mindfulness increases focus on the present, preventing us from spending all of our time ruminating and regretting, or inventing anxiety-provoking future scenarios. Mindfulness training also helps us catch ourselves more quickly when we drift off into the past or future, allowing us to consciously bring our attention back to what’s happening here and now.
2) Greater appreciation of everyday experience. When we function on autopilot, we miss out on many rich or interesting moments. Mindfulness cultivates our ability to pay attention to what’s happening before us, picking up information with all five senses. Mindfulness training helps us register things like a pretty garden we pass every morning on our walk to work, the pleasant drumming of warm water on our back in the shower, or how good food tastes when we aren’t wolfing it down.
3) Increased curiosity. Mindfulness encourages a receptive curiosity about all experience, even the unpleasant ones (e.g., “Oh look, my stomach clenched the instant the phone rang, before I even saw who was calling. What’s that about?”). Conceptualizing all our experiences as intriguing phenomena means that even doing things we dislike, fear, or avoid can be interesting. Experiences we formerly avoided, like public speaking or spending time alone, became opportunities to observe and learn about ourselves.
4) Increased acceptance/tolerance of uncomfortable emotions. A lot of anxiety, sadness, anger, guilt, and other uncomfortable emotions constitute secondary reactions to an original emotion. For example, we might feel jealous (primary emotion) that our colleague got the promotion we wanted, and then feel guilty (secondary emotion) about feeling jealous. Mindfulness training increases our ability to tolerate and accept primary emotions so we don’t create the secondary ones. We develop self-compassion and learn that, even if we don’t like it, it’s okay to feel, for example, jealous of our colleague.
The study’s authors concluded that more research is needed but that “clinicians should be aware that meditation programs can result in small to moderate reductions of multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress… and should be prepared to talk with their patients about the role that a meditation program could have in addressing psychological stress.” Increased focus on the present, greater appreciation of experience, increased curiosity, and greater acceptance of negative emotions may explain the role of mindfulness training in decreasing anxiety and depression, reducing stress, and increasing mental health-related quality of life.