News

Mindfulness Can Help Improve Mental Health, But It Doesn't Work for Everyone: Study

Illustration of man practicing meditation.

Five Stars / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Mindfulness is a mental state of being that refers to being fully present in the moment while also paying attention to how one experiences that moment.
  • It has become increasingly popular in recent years as a way of increasing well being and reducing stress levels.
  • However, mindfulness is not a panacea; its effectiveness depends on how it is used and whether or not it suits the individual's personal needs.

Over the years, mindfulness has continually grown in popularity and millions of people have learned to apply it in their lives. The practice has emerged as the go-to universal tool to reduce stress and increase well being. It's accessible to anyone, anywhere.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is an ancient practice that involves being completely aware of what’s happening in the present all around and inside of you. It typically means not living your life on “autopilot.”

In a recent meta-analysis, researchers from the U.K. found that mindfulness programs led to significant reductions in depression, anxiety, stress, and improved wellbeing. But they also found that the practice may not be the answer to improved mental health in all cases and settings.

After reviewing information from over 11,605 participants in mindfulness training trials, they determined that while mindfulness appeared to improve anxiety and depression when compared to doing nothing, the techniques were not successful for every individual. The analysis was published on January 11 in the journal PLOS Medicine.

“One particular misconception that this study clears up is the assumption that mindfulness training is universally good and works for everyone, everywhere,” one of the study's authors Dr. Julieta Galante, a research fellow at the department of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, tells Verywell. “Our findings reveal a positive but more nuanced picture."

What This Means For You

Mindfulness can be a helpful tool for managing stress and anxiety, but it may not work for everyone. Try incorporating mindfulness into your daily routine to see if it works for you, but don't be discouraged if it doesn't. A mental health professional can help you find strategies that work for you and your well being.

The Study

The researchers found in their review that mindfulness fared neither better nor worse than other feel-good practices such as physical exercise.

“Mental health is the result of a myriad of factors in life. The conditions in which people live have a major role in mental health problems,” Galante says. “But it is often the case that we cannot control those factors, so we turn to what is available. Connecting with others, volunteering for causes you care about, doing things you enjoy, and having an active lifestyle are all great for your mental health.”

The researchers warn that these findings may not be conclusive. The samples studied were relatively small, and the results could have been biased, due to the way they were conducted. For example, many participants dropped out of the mindfulness courses entirely and were therefore not represented in the results.

When the researchers repeated their analysis including only the higher-quality studies, they found that mindfulness only improved stress, not well being, depression, or anxiety. More research needs to be done before they can draw conclusions.

Still, Galante finds the results of the meta-analysis promising. “I find it exciting that science can reveal and guide us through the complexity and nuances of non-pharmacological mental health interventions such as mindfulness training,” she says. “This complexity reflects the enormous variety of human cultures and contexts.”

How To Practice Mindfulness

You can attempt to practice mindfulness at home with six simple steps:

  1. Finding a quiet spot. Take a seat in a space that calms you.
  2. Give yourself a time limit. For beginners, opt for a shorter amount of time like five minutes.
  3. Notice your body. You can position yourself in a myriad of ways, whether on a chair or cross-legged on the floor. It's important to choose a spot you can sit in for a while.
  4. Feel your breath. Try to follow your breath as you inhale and exhale.
  5. Notice when your mind wanders. Once your mind begins to wander, make sure to bring your focus back to your breathing.
  6. But don't stress over a wandering mind. It's inevitable for your mind to focus on other places. Notice where it wanders and just be kind to yourself.

If mindfulness doesn't seem to do the trick for you, don't get frustrated. Make sure to keep your mental health professional—if you have one—updated. “I would encourage practitioners to tell their mindfulness teachers about any unexpected experiences with mindfulness meditation,” Galante says. “And if practice brings repeated mental or physical discomfort that is still present after the sessions, I would advise consulting a health professional.”

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institutes of Health. Mindfulness matters. Updated January 2012.

  2. Galante J, Friedrich C, Dawson AF, et al. Mindfulness-based programmes for mental health promotion in adults in nonclinical settings: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trialsPLOS Medicine. 2021;18(1):e1003481.

  3. Mindful. How to practice mindfulness. Updated December 12, 2018.