They're doing it at Google and at Nike to boost productivity, they're doing it in schools to improve test results and they're even doing it in the British House of Commons, in an attempt to make international politics more peaceful. The ubiquity of mindfulness meditation might make you think mindfulness is a cure-all pill with no side effects- but has the hype overtaken the science?

It may not help as much as you think.

The truthful answer is, we don't know.

Although anecdotal reports about mindfulness meditation are largely positive, controlled studies on mindfulness meditation have been less convincing.

In a paper titled "Mind the Hype", published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science last month, fifteen eminent brain researchers from across the United States warned that the majority of studies on mindfulness meditation have been conducted with flawed methodology. Many of them did not have a control group, to rule out a placebo effect.

Just a few days before, a randomized, controlled study found that mindfulness meditation practice did not lower the hormonal response (measured with cortisol) to stress. This was not an isolated finding. A previous systematic review of forty-seven trials had concluded there was a "low level" of evidence for mindfulness meditation improving stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life.

These largely neutral findings may be the result of mindfulness meditation practice working very well for some people and less well for others. 

Mindfulness meditation may actually add to your stress.

It's also possible that while mindfulness meditation achieves great results in some individuals, it may backfire to some degree, in others.

 One large randomized, controlled study on teenage students found that male students felt more anxious after eight weeks of mindfulness meditation practice, compared to a control group. In another study, three days of mindfulness meditation practice increased volunteers' hormonal stress reactivity to psychological stress.

There are many possible explanations for these findings. One explanation may be that some people feel calmer when they deflect attention away from their thoughts, rather than pay closer attention to them. 

Mindfulness meditation may amplify negative thinking.

In their book The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? scientists Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm list several anecdotes of people experiencing severe mental distress after mindfulness meditation and argue that "being in the here and now" may not work for everyone.

Mindfulness meditation encourages you to watch the thoughts passing through your mind. It's possible that if you find it difficult to detach from negative thoughts, you might latch onto these thoughts as you observe them. This will pull you into a whirlwind of negative rumination that you will struggle to escape from.

If this happens every time you mindfully meditate, then mindfulness meditation may bring you more chaos than calm. 

In focused attention meditation you avoid your thoughts, you don't follow them.

Meditation comes in different flavors and if you find mindfulness meditation uncomfortable, there is plenty more to choose from.  

Focused attention meditation may be a better bet for people who find it distressing to focus on their own thoughts.  In focused attention meditation, you focus away from your thoughts and onto a target, such as an image, or your mind's eye, or your breath. Rather than observe your thoughts, you block them out.

Other forms of meditation that may lead you away from your thoughts include meditation using guided imagery or using a string of words repeated over and over again (a mantra).

Hatha yoga has traditionally been used as an appetizer to focused attention meditation by giving you something physical to focus on while you try to block away your thoughts. It is easier to tell your mind what to do than to tell it what to think.

What this means for you.

Meditation is everywhere and it's probably here to stay. To get the most out of meditation, try out different styles and pick the style that best fits your state of mind. 

  • If you're comfortable with mindfulness meditation and it makes you feel good, go right ahead.
  • If you haven't tried it yet but want to, make sure you try it under the guidance of a well-trained teacher.
  • If dwelling on your thoughts makes you uncomfortable, try focused attention meditation instead.