Can mindfulness treat cancer? Help you fall asleep? Everyone's talking about mindfulness how it can improve well-being and performance. But through all the hype, we may be losing sight of what mindfulness actually is ... and is not. Let's take a balanced look at mindfulness science to bust some myths.
Recently, a friend of mine discovered mindfulness meditation. She’s now as close to being a “fanatic” (her word) as a person can be about something so gentle. She told me that meditating every day has not only made her happier and more productive, it’s even helped her heal injuries.
This last part definitely caught me off guard. Heal injuries? How?
My friend offered an example. She explained that she recently scraped her knee. To help with healing, she just stopped and meditated with her full attention on the scrape twice per day. The knee scabbed over and healed within a couple of days. She felt that was a lot faster and less painful than usual.
“You also cleaned the scrape to prevent infection, right?” I asked.
“No, no, you don’t need that," she said. "Your body will always heal itself if you really meditate mindfully.”
I’m certainly happy that my friend is in good spirits and experiencing less discomfort. But her mindfulness-is-a-cure-all stance had me scratching my head. And that stance isn't limited to my friend. A lot of people seem to be jumping on the mindfulness-fixes-everything train.
The well-earned popularity of mindfulness
In the past decade or so, mindfulness seems to be exponentially growing in popularity. Everyone and their mom is getting into it! Neuroscientists, doctors, corporate executives, lifestyle gurus ... they're all excited about its potential for improving our lives.
And there's good reason for the hype. Research shows that mindfulness can help to reduce cancer-related symptoms, improve the childbirth experience, reduce stress and increase empathy, and promote healthier eating habits.
It’s hard to talk to a therapist without mindfulness coming up.
The US Army is investing in research to see if pre-deployment mindfulness training can make soldiers more resilient. Tech giants like Google and Intel are offering mindfulness training to help employees improve productivity. And of course, mindfulness is widely practiced in mental healthcare. Nowadays, as more and more of us mental health professionals are incorporating it into our therapies, it’s hard to talk to a therapist without mindfulness coming up.
But is it possible that sometimes we’re getting a little carried away? Is mindfulness really a cure-all?
What mindfulness is ... and isn't
First, let me say that I’m a big fan of mindfulness as a philosophy and a practice. I say this as both a clinical scientist and as a person who practices mindfulness daily. It’s really been helpful through chronic back pain and coronavirus anxiety.
I don’t want mindfulness to be a passing fad like bell-bottoms or Jazzercise.
But I also think that being careful in the way we think and talk about mindfulness is important. I don’t want mindfulness to be a passing fad like bell-bottoms or Jazzercise, and that can happen when we exaggerate claims about its effectiveness. For mindfulness to truly help people, it needs to have a legitimate place in our culture backed by an accurate understanding of what it is ... and what it isn’t.
So, I’m excited to share this two-part series on demystifying mindfulness. Today, I'll clarify what exactly mindfulness is (and isn't) and what it can do. Next week, we’ll dig into some practical tips for how you can effectively incorporate mindfulness into your life.
Mindfulness is not (necessarily) meditation
It’s important to make a distinction between mindfulness and meditation.
Mindfulness is more of a philosophy than an activity. It’s an idea—to simply be here and now, without judgment.
Meditation is an activity, something you do. There are many forms of meditation—some involving paying attention to breathing, some involving imagining a scene, some involving repeating a mantra. Usually, you would need to set aside time and a quiet place to practice meditation.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, is more of a philosophy than an activity. It’s an idea—to simply be here and now, without judgment. You don’t need to be sitting or closing your eyes or following a ritual during a set-aside time to practice mindfulness. You could be eating an apple, washing dishes, walking from the parking lot to the store, playing with your dog, singing in the shower … all of these activities can be done in a mindful way by being fully present in the moment.
Of course, you can practice mindfulness using meditation. One of my favorite meditations is the Mindful Breathing practice. You simply breathe and pay attention to your breath without judgment. That’s it.
Some meditations guide your imagination through a relaxing scene. But mentally traveling to a different place instead of being here and now is literally the opposite of being mindful.
But not all meditation is mindful. For example, some meditations guide your imagination through a relaxing scene. But mentally traveling to a different place instead of being here and now is literally the opposite of being mindful. I think the difference is very important, because if we think mindfulness always looks like sitting cross-legged and humming a mantra, then we're less likely to give it a try and even less likely to cultivate it long-term.
Mindfulness is not a cure-all
Like I mentioned earlier, mindfulness has been incorporated into all sorts of psychotherapies, and sometimes even into performance-boosting programs. Lots of headlines make it seem like mindfulness is the panacea for all of our ills, from low motivation to anxiety to sleeplessness.
But mindfulness is not a cure-all.
I think of mindfulness as a healthy foundation—a way for us to connect non-judgmentally with our bodies and minds.
Most of the clinical trials that show mindfulness as improving symptoms included other psychotherapy “ingredients” like working through unhelpful thoughts or increasing activity level. So the headlines, if they were more precise, would read more like: “Mindfulness practice plus setting goals and talking to a therapist about your thoughts is helpful for decreasing stress.” Less catchy, but more accurate.
So I like to think of mindfulness as a healthy foundation—a way for us to connect non-judgmentally with our bodies and minds so we’re not struggling against ourselves when we’re in pain or feeling down. Instead, mindfulness helps us to have a more compassionate view of our experiences so we end up feeling less at odds with ourselves.
Mindfulness should not replace your doctor’s advice or other standard treatments
I hope my friend with the scraped knee will practice proper injury care next time, like disinfecting broken skin and icing inflammation. But I’m not too worried about minor injuries. It’s serious injuries and health conditions that I want to be really clear about. For those, mindfulness alone is not enough!
Mindfulness is not a cure, but as long as you're getting treatment for your illness, cultivating mindfulness might make enduring it easier.
My friend is not totally wrong about mindful healing. You may have heard of research showing that mindfulness-based approaches may be helpful for people undergoing physical rehab after an injury. But it doesn’t work miracles—you won’t suddenly turn into Wolverine with self-healing superpowers. But when you're injured, mindfulness can help with managing pain, improving mood, and decreasing fatigue.
When it comes to serious psychiatric conditions, there is some evidence that mindfulness can decrease symptoms of psychosis, but this more applies to improving motivation and daily functioning, not so much hallucinations or delusions.
So, although mindfulness is not a cure, as long as you're getting treatment for your illness, cultivating mindfulness might just make it easier to live and enjoy your life.
Mindfulness does not sweep away trauma
I know how hard it is to face trauma. If you’ve experienced a life-threatening event or childhood abuse, you know that trauma leaves its mark on your body and mind. Even if you don’t have full-blown posttraumatic stress disorder, you may have problems like always feeling on edge, having unexplained pain or other physical symptoms, having a hard time managing emotions, or not sleeping well.
Trauma burrows deep into our brains, and it won’t simply fizzle away when you get in better touch with your body and emotions.
The good news is that mindfulness-based practices can reduce PTSD symptoms. The tough news is that reducing symptoms doesn’t mean getting to the other side of trauma, the place where you truly make peace with both what happened and with yourself. Trauma burrows deep into our brains, and it won’t simply fizzle away when you get in better touch with your body and emotions.
In fact, sometimes beginning to practice mindfulness will bring on difficult feelings and memories more than ever. I remember one patient who had the TV or radio on 24/7. The first time she went for a mindful walk without any distractions, she burst into tears. For the first time, her bottled up feelings had room to burst through.
For others, mindfulness practice might even trigger trauma flashbacks. This doesn’t mean that people with trauma should not practice mindfulness; it’s actually a good place to start. But ultimately, I recommend working with a trauma-focused therapist who can give you evidence-based treatments like cognitive processing therapy (CPT) and help you incorporate mindfulness safely.
Mindfulness is not a tool for patching up physical, mental, or spiritual problems
As a sleep specialist, I often hear patients say they’ve tried mindfulness apps when they couldn’t fall asleep. But they also tell me this technique often doesn’t work. What they and many others are doing is trying to use mindfulness meditation as a fix-it tool. And unfortunately, they’re disappointed when it doesn’t solve their problem of the moment.
Mindfulness isn't a tool to be whipped out when things go awry.
Mindfulness isn't a tool to be whipped out when things go awry. Instead, it’s a philosophy and a way of being.
Your body and mind need to learn how to be mindful over time—and it’s not easy! Just as you wouldn’t sit on the couch all year and then expect to run a marathon, you can’t go around unmindfully all the time and then expect to be good at it when you run into insomnia (or stress, pain, anger.)
Besides, if you’re using mindfulness to avoid problems, you’re missing the point. Mindfulness teaches us to fully feel and accept our experiences, including painful or unhappy ones. The hope is to cultivate an authentic relationship with ourselves and our surroundings, not to patch up whatever we don’t like.
Mindfulness is about paying attention
To sum up, mindfulness is powerful. It can serve as a solid foundation for self-awareness and well-being. But it’s not a tool and it’s not a cure-all; it's a philosophy and a practice.
When we boil it down to the basics, being mindful really just means to pay attention to reality through our five senses. It means to watch the road and trees when we drive instead of going on autopilot and thinking about politics. It means to let yourself feel discomfort ebbing and flowing instead of trying to ignore it. It means really tasting the food you’re eating, instead of inhaling your sandwich while working at your desk.
Next week, we'll talk more about what mindfulness looks like in practice and how you can incorporate it into your own life.