You may have noticed that a lot of people are suddenly talking about mindfulness. In the UK the government in May last year revealed that it is exploring the potential for teaching mindfulness as part of the national curriculum, while the National Health Service has been recommending it as a therapy for depression since 2004.

In June 2014 the British Parliament launched an all-party working group to assess the value of mindfulness across healthcare, education and prisons. Meanwhile, in the corporate world large multinationals including Apple, Google, Mckinsey & Co and PwC have all introduced employee-mindfulness training as a means of reducing stress and increasing productivity.

All of this is a reflection of its rapid strides into the mainstream. Nonetheless, there are many – and you may be among them – that regard mindfulness, as newspaper article earlier this year described it, as ‘close to sounding like new age waffle’ (see this article here ). Perceptions count for a lot and mindfulness to many is still associated with its Buddhist roots.

So what is the actual evidence supporting this widespread interest in mindfulness and meditation?

Let’s first deal with the perception barrier. If the whole thing is simply unappealing because you feel you’ll be seen as Buddhist, a new-age spiritualist or sandal-wearing hippy, consider these questions:

Do you regularly find your mind racing about work and wish you could make it stop?

Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night worrying about something?

Do you find yourself reacting emotionally when someone does or says something annoying and do you later regret those reactions?

Would you be interested in doing something very simple that could help clear your mind and whose benefits are supported by scientific research?

If your answers to those questions are “yes” then it is worth you looking into mindfulness and how you could apply it to your life (we have recommended some books at the end of the article if you’re interested in further reading).

The reality is, we all have to live inside our own minds. No matter what is happening in your external life, if you’re stressed and find your mind playing some stressful moment over and over in your head, then buying a new car or expensive gadget is not going to count for much.

There’s a lot we still don’t understand about how the mind works. But there are several tools, which  help our minds work a bit better, that we do know. Mindfulness is one of those tools.

With it being considered for all kinds of uses, people are quite rightly asking for hard evidence that it actually works. There are undoubtedly gaps in this evidence right now. But the good news is that there is a vast amount of research ongoing. A quick search of the PubMed medical database reveals more than 2,000 studies assessing the benefits of mindfulness in treating clinical conditions.

For those interested in the scientific robustness of these studies some are uncontrolled, before-and-after studies but a high proportion are randomized clinical trials, which is the gold standard technique. There are also several large meta-analyses, which aggregate other studies to draw over-arching conclusions.

The largest of these featured in the Clinical Psychology Review journal in 2013 and covered 209 different studies conducted since 2010 involving a combined total of 12,145 patients. The review included a range of different study types as well as a variety of different comparator interventions. It concluded that ‘mindfulness based therapy’ is an 'effective treatment for a variety of psychological problems, and is especially effective for reducing anxiety, depression, and stress’. An independent academic body found the study to be valid and conducted in an appropriately robust manner (read this article here).

Other clinical studies suggest that:

Mindfulness helps reduce stress in patients with diabetes - Read the article here

Mindfulness may help, in the short-term, at least in preventing eating disorders in young women - Read the article here

Mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy (MCBT) has been shown in a meta-analysis of studies covering 593 patients to cut the relapse rate in people who have suffered more than three previous bouts of depression (although not those who have only suffered two previous bouts - Read the article here

One thing that stands out from the literature is that mindfulness is being assessed as a treatment for serious clinical conditions. None of these may apply to you and you may well be asking how relevant all this is. There are two points:

By studying the benefits of mindfulness for something like depression, a high bar is being set. By demonstrating effectiveness against a condition that is difficult to treat, we can have greater confidence that mindfulness can help against less serious conditions like day-to-day stress

Mindfulness is not just about treating medical conditions and solving problems. It is also a means of increasing happiness by rendering us less locked into our internal commentary and more conscious of what we’re doing and the world around us.

If you’re questioning whether mindfulness is for you then ask yourself this simple question: what percentage of your time do you spend focusing on the present moment?

If the answer is more than about 15-20% then you’re doing well! Life can only ever take place in the present moment. Being mindful, then, is about living life in a more conscious way. What’s to lose?

Recommended reading

The seminal text on living life in the present is Eckhart Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now”. It’s less than 200 pages and a great place to start.

The best book on how to practice mindfulness is ‘Mindfulness, a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world’ by Mark Williams and Danny Penman

What do you think?

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