Myth Busters: Mindfulness

Written by Nicole Caines, R Psych

Mindfulness is a trendy topic these days. I noticed just last week that Time magazine dedicated a whole issue to the topic. So, what’s all the hype about? Should we all be doing it?

First, let’s start with a definition. The most common definition of mindfulness, popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who create the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, is:

To pay attention to the present moment, on purpose, nonjudgmentally.

Why would we want to do this? Becoming more present and fostering acceptance of the present offers many benefits: increased enjoyment of the present moment when it is joyful, increased presence and engagement in relationships, and a decrease in the experience of being caught up in worrying about the future or obsessing about the past. A significant amount of suffering comes from the reactions that we have to our experiences. Mindfulness helps us to change our relationship with our thoughts, feelings, and sensations so that we can attend to them without becoming overwhelmed and controlled by them. All of these things help to stabilize our mental and physical health. 

The two most common mindfulness-based programs worldwide are Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which was developed with a focus mainly on stress and chronic pain, and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which combines mindfulness with cognitive behavioural therapy and was developed with a focus on depression and anxiety. Both programs have been adapted over the years to be applicable for many other psychological/mental health and physical/medical conditions. That said, there are a multitude of mindfulness-based activities that exist outside the realm of these programs. 

Now, to the myths:

Myth: Mindfulness involves clearing your mind of thoughts. 

: I often hear people say that they are ‘bad’ at mindfulness because their mind wanders. But, here’s the thing: that’s what your brain is designed to do. Mindfulness meditation is not about clearing your mind. That’s not the goal. It’s about giving your mind something to focus on (such as breath, a mantra, or body sensations), noticing when you become distracted (which is inevitable), and gently returning your focus to whatever you have chosen to focus on. As long as you’re doing that, you are practicing mindfulness. Even if you have to do it 100 times. My sense is that this myth stems from a belief that mindfulness is a passive activity of sitting with nothing. In fact, it is a very active and intentional activity and is not always easy. In my experience, it is rarely easy. 

Myth: Mindfulness is meditation. 

: Not exactly. Mindfulness meditation is the formal practice by which we practice and hone mindfulness skills. However, meditation is not the only way to be mindful. Further, there are many types of meditation, and mindfulness is only one. Think of mindfulness meditation as falling under two broader categories: it is a form of meditation, and it is a form of mindfulness. Other ways to practice mindfulness in a formal way are through mindful movement, yoga, and mindful eating. We also practice mindfulness informally in our daily lives when we pay attention to our experiences. I often explain to clients that we build the skill of mindfulness formally through an organized practice so that we can apply it informally moment-to-moment in our daily lives. 

Myth: Mindfulness is ‘hippy stuff’ with no basis in science. 

: While the idea of meditation commonly conjures images of ‘hippy’ types, mindfulness is based in and backed by science. Furthermore, science and ‘hippiness’ are not mutually exclusive. Randomized controlled trials (the ‘gold standard’ in health research) have found mindfulness-based interventions to be helpful as an adjunct treatment for cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, depression, anxiety disorders, and in the prevention of health issues in adults and children. Note the use of the word adjunct above, which means that mindfulness should not be used as a stand-alone treatment for health issues, whether physical or mental. It is one piece of what is usually a larger puzzle.  

Myth: Mindfulness is a religious practice.

: While some of the concepts of mindfulness are taken from Buddhist teachings, mindfulness-based interventions have been developed to be secular-based. Mindfulness is not meant to threaten anyone’s religious beliefs.  

Myth: The purpose of mindfulness is relaxation. 

: While reduced stress can be long term impacts of mindfulness, relaxation is not the goal. Mindfulness does not target the relaxation response. The goal is awareness of the present (and the benefits that come with it), not relaxation. I often have clients practice both mindfulness and relaxation exercises (which target the relaxation response), in order to gain the benefits of both. 

Myth: Mindfulness is helpful for everyone. 

: Much of what we read in popular media would have us believe that mindfulness is a panacea that will help anyone. This is an incorrect and potentially harmful assumption. If I have one issue with mindfulness-based programs, it is their lack of attention to the fact that mindfulness is not helpful for everyone all the time. I was shocked, when I recently signed up for my own mindfulness class, that I was not asked to answer any sort of questionnaire to determine whether I was a good fit for the class. So, who should be wary of mindfulness? The research has not yet clearly answered that question. However, here are my thoughts on circumventing the possibility of harm: Anyone who experiences psychosis, bipolar mania, extreme anxiety or OCD, substance abuse, or has a history of unresolved trauma, should tread lightly into mindfulness. Focused attention on uncomfortable thoughts or emotions in a sustained way may be overwhelming and triggering and mindfulness interventions with these individuals need to be approached in a careful and personalized way. Remember that focused attention allows thoughts and feeling to emerge, and those thoughts and feelings may not be pleasant. In some cases, increasing focus on present experience is the opposite of what is helpful. Mindfulness can also inadvertently contribute to some symptoms of trauma if not approached in a trauma-informed manner. Additionally, those with severe depression would be wise to consider whether they can meet the attentional demands of a formal mindfulness based program. If in doubt, start with short, low intensity exercises and work with a mental health professional, is possible. 

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Gotink et al. (2015). Standardised mindfulness-based interventions in healthcare: an overview of systematic reviews and meta-analyses of RCTs. PLoS One.10(4). Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0124344



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Nicole Caines