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Mindfulness Works, But Not for Everyone

Man practicing mindfulness

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Key Takeaways

  • While mindfulness is a popular strategy for decreasing stress, a new research review shows that it doesn't have consistent results for everyone.
  • People tend to define mindfulness in different ways, and some feel even more stressed when feeling like they’re “failing” at harnessing the practice.
  • Start with very short breaks throughout the day to train your brain to rest, and find a practice that’s a good fit for you.

Mindfulness is often touted as a way to reduce stress, but a research review in PLOS Medicine found it’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy, and some experts suggest it may even increase stress for some individuals.

In the recent study, 136 trials on mindfulness programs were assessed for their effects, and researchers found that, compared with doing nothing, the programs were helpful for reducing anxiety, depression, and stress, as well as increasing feelings of wellbeing.

However, they added that these programs didn’t seem to stand out more than community-based programs with other health benefits, like fitness efforts. They noted that mindfulness shouldn’t be assumed to work for everyone, especially since there are many different types of courses available, raising the issue of quality across various practices.

What Is a Mindfulness Practice?

A potentially thorny issue in seeking more mindfulness is that the term itself can encompass a range of approaches. The Oxford dictionary definition notes that mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment while accepting one’s thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in a calm manner.

Achieving that state, though, can incorporate a range of techniques like:

Some mindfulness training practices—including popular apps like Calm and Headspace—emphasize sitting still and letting thoughts flow without attachment to them. But other mindfulness experts encourage movement and bringing awareness to everyday activities instead, like making the bed or doing the dishes.

“Because there are many ways to be mindful, the good news is that you have all these different options to find the one that works for you,” says Travis Westbrook, PhD, a clinical psychologist from Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center who specializes in depression, anxiety, and life transitions. “On the flip side, you may try one of these and if it’s not working, you might feel like you ‘failed at mindfulness,’ which can feel self-defeating.”

First Steps

The sense that you’re not succeeding at mindfulness is common, says Westbrook. For example, many people feel like they should meditate, given all the research on its benefits, but they struggle to establish a practice. Ironically, that can heighten feelings of stress, he adds.

“You may be pressuring yourself and setting expectations that end up making you feel worse,” states Westbrook. “That means trying to meditate to alleviate stress will have the opposite effect. You’ll come away feeling frustrated.”

Melissa Steginus

Your brain needs periods of stillness, when you’re just pausing from all the information coming in, and the subsequent decisions that go along with that. Just take a few minutes to do nothing a few times a day.

— Melissa Steginus

Rather than force yourself to conform to a practice you think you “should” be doing, it’s helpful to take a step back and pay attention to what you enjoy doing, suggests productivity expert Melissa Steginus, author of Everyday Mindfulness.

“We try so hard to feel less stressed, especially now, and that’s led many people to lose the connection to what makes them feel refreshed and connected,” she says, adding that another important aspect to building a mindfulness practice is simply learning how to rest. To Steginus, that means taking a break that’s free of any mental consumption, like scrolling social media but also reading, watching TV, or catching up on email.

“Your brain needs periods of stillness, when you’re just pausing from all the information coming in, and the subsequent decisions that go along with that,” she says. “Just take a few minutes to do nothing a few times a day.”

Starting with just 15 seconds of “nothing” can be useful, she says, because it begins to train your mind to have these restful break periods. At the same time, you can employ mindfulness practices like feeling your breath as you inhale and exhale, or stretching slowly—especially if you’ve been sitting for hours beforehand.

“If you feel like mindfulness isn’t working, then it’s possible you need to change your understanding of what being mindful is for you,” says Steginus. “Keep playing around with different options until you find the right fit.”

What This Means For You

If you feel like you're "failing" at mindfulness, it's very likely you're putting too much pressure on yourself to adopt a practice that's not a good fit for you. Experts suggest learning to take breaks first, and playing around with different options until you find a mindfulness approach that feels more comfortable and enjoyable.

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  1. Galante J, Friedrich C, Dawson AF, Modrego-Alarcón M, Gebbing P, Delgado-Suárez I, et al. Mindfulness-based programmes for mental health promotion in adults in nonclinical settings: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. PLoS Med. Published January 11, 2021;18(1). doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1003481