Although mindfulness courses can reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress, a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge has found that the practice doesn't necessarily hold in nonclinical settings.
For this report, published in PLOS Medicine, researchers from the university's Department of Psychiatry performed a systematic review and meta-analysis to examine the published data from 136 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) on mindfulness training for mental health promotion in community settings.
The trials analyzed included 11,605 participants aged 18 to 73 years from 29 countries, more than 77% of whom were women. The researchers found that in most community settings, compared with doing nothing, mindfulness reduced anxiety, depression and stress, and increased well-being. However, in more than 1 in 20 trial settings, mindfulness-based programs did not appear to improve anxiety and depression.
"For the average person and setting, practicing mindfulness appears to be better than doing nothing for improving our mental health, particularly when it comes to depression, anxiety and psychological distress—but we shouldn't assume that it works for everyone, everywhere," said Dr. Julieta Galante, the report's lead author.
In addition, the researchers caution that the combined results may not represent the true effects. For example, many participants stopped attending mindfulness courses and were not asked why, so they aren't actually represented in the results. They add that the variability in the success of different mindfulness-based programs may come down to a number of reasons, including how, where and by whom they are implemented, as well as at whom they are targeted.
"While mindfulness is often better than taking no action, we found that there may be other effective ways of improving our mental health and well-being, such as exercise," added senior author Peter Jones. "In many cases, these may prove to be more suitable alternatives if they are more effective, culturally more acceptable or are more feasible or cost-effective to implement. The good news is that there are now more options."