When mindfulness might not work

Australian employees want mental health at work taken seriously

When mindfulness might not work.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you will know the word ‘mindfulness’ has quite a buzz about it.

CEOs are into it, so are talk show hosts, pop stars, famous actors, sports stars and lately it’s being rolled out in corporate wellness programs for thousands of stressed-out employees.

There are some compelling reasons why this is happening: a mountain of scientific research over the past two decades shows mindfulness practice has positive effects on a range of mental health issues and may even improve self-esteem and help people cope more effectively with stress.

But as a recent Australian Financial Review article pointed out, mindfulness is no magic pill. The newspaper ran a story based on a study of 189 men, aged on average 70-71 years with advanced prostate cancer, some of whom were exposed to mindfulness-based cognitive therapy over the phone for eight weeks. The Griffith University study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Oncology.

One of the study’s co-authors, Suzanne K. Chambers, found: “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy did not improve the men’s well-being in comparison to their usual medical management… [furthermore the men it did not affect any] reduction in psychological distress [or] lessening of anxiety about testing for prostate specific antigen – a measure of tumour progression and response to treatment – and [or] lowering of distress related to their cancer.

“Men receiving [mindfulness] therapy also reported no improvement in quality of life nor post-traumatic growth, a term that encompasses positive psychological change as a result of their cancer.”

Chambers and Queensland Cancer Council CEO Jeff Dunn, in a co-authored article for theconversation.com did however acknowledge the study participants found mindfulness “helpful in terms of not feeling alone, learning meditation and breathing exercises, understanding the meaning of well-being and perceived control of thoughts and health.”

Dunn and Chambers did also acknowledge other research had shown mindfulness had positive affects in relation to cancer – a study of 325 women found “some evidence for the effectiveness of [mindfulness-based stress reduction programs” in improving psychological health in breast cancer patients”. The results were published in the October 2012 issue of the journal Current Oncology. They also acknowledged “influential health organisations” in the United States and the United Kingdom saw fit to recommend mindfulness as a tool to manage chronic illness.

It could be argued a mindfulness study based on terminally ill men in their 70s says little about how a younger physically healthy audience could benefit from mindfulness. But regardless, the principle it highlights is worthwhile: if facing reality won’t help your life in the long run, then mindfulness might not be for you.

Marc Richardson, a Sydney-based psychologist with Financial Mindfulness, who also works in private practice, said the results of the Griffith University study were “not surprising”.

“Any kind of denial these men, in the advanced stages of prostate cancer, were holding on to might be stripped away by mindfulness. It seems almost unkind to try and get them out of denial.”

Richardson added that people with serious mental illnesses, such as dissociative or psychotic disorders or those facing gravely stressful life events, should seek advice from a trained psychologist before embarking on a course of mindfulness.

Mindfulness could help a great many other people though, Richardson said, especially people facing financial stress – which is a leading cause of stress in the western world.

“Mindfulness gives people stressed about money a chance to slow down their thinking, ground themselves and an opportunity for a new perspective,” he said.

“When we are in an anxious state trying to perceive things clearly or to manage situations effectively is very difficult – we can get stuck ruminating on negative thoughts.

“Something about mindfulness acts as a circuit breaker and allow us time to slow down and rethink our position, potentially allowing us to then take more effective actions.”

A terminal illness is probably not the only limitation on mindfulness either. If you expect mindfulness to remove problems in your life you may be disappointed.

So let’s make a few things clear: sadly mindfulness will not make cancer go away. It also won’t get you a speedboat and it won’t make people like you if they didn’t before. It won’t make you a mind-reader and it won’t give you the patience of a saint. But if you do 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation every day, your thinking will probably become measurably clearer.

What you do with better cognitive processing is up to you.

It’s entirely possible that with cleaner, healthier thinking you could write a piece of music or even a book, start a business, learn to really listen to others, or even just finish or resolve something that has been a ‘block’ in your life for years.

It could also contribute to you stopping behaviours that would otherwise lead to serious illnesses – and let’s be clear, this is not a comment on the causes of prostate cancer, which are thought to be partly genetic, partly lifestyle.

So mindfulness is not be for everyone. But neither is swimming, playing a musical instrument, yoga or gardening – and few would argue those activities are not beneficial, let alone that they should be avoided.