Is mindfulness making our stress worse?

Mindfulness is seen as a panacea for our modern mental wellbeing issues. But Professor Ronald Purser argues it’s misused

Woman using mindfulness app
Image: iStock

There’s a real pressure in our society to be productive, and issues that get in the way of that – notably stress and anxiety – can be viewed as a dysfunction that we need to resolve on our own. One hugely popular ‘cure’ is for us to become more mindful. 

People see mindfulness as harmless meditation, and think of it as a tool that will make them happy and provide some immediate relief to a particular trouble or situation. And there’s no doubt it has its benefits. However, there are also many adverse effects, and the way it’s promoted as a universal panacea – a one-size-fits-all self-help tool – is, I think, irresponsible and does a disservice to the public. 

Does mindfulness work?

Willoughby Britton at Brown University, Rhode Island, is at the leading edge of mindfulness research and her recent studies have found 59 different effects from mindfulness. While many are positive, there are also negative effects, including the finding that 82 per cent of experienced meditators reported fear, anxiety, panic or paranoia during or as a result of mindfulness meditation, especially in the context of a retreat. She also found a risk of depersonalisation, where you feel detached from your mental processes or body, as well as psychosis, delusions, hallucinations and loss of appetite.

Mindfulness is frequently seen as a cure for insomnia, but Britton’s studies determined that it increased arousal, running counter to the hype. Britton also found that people suffering from PTSD who practise mindfulness run the risk of resurfacing traumatic memories. 

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New meta-analytic studies, which are studies of studies, also conclude that the effects of mindfulness are not as significant as have been reported. In fact, they’re often very modest. Many studies used to promote mindfulness had methodological issues – essentially, they weren’t performed well enough to establish whether mindfulness does actually work – and when these issues were taken into account, the scale of benefits dropped considerably. And yet mindfulness’s veneer of science remains. 

Even putting issues with the science to one side, there are other problems with the popularity of mindfulness that are cause for concern. A friend made the analogy that mindfulness is like dieting. Many people watch what they eat, but the number of overweight and obese people continues to grow. In the same way, a lot of people practise mindfulness, but rates of stress and anxiety are accelerating. 

Shirking responsibility

In the contemporary form of basic mindfulness, practitioners are usually instructed to pay attention to the breath and allow thoughts and feelings to come and go without judgement. This way, you don’t get caught up in any narratives or thinking patterns that arise and it gives us some distance. 

However, many people come to meditation as a way to escape pain and emotional issues, a way of numbing the self. It’s risky, and my view is that it enables people to avoid critical thinking which might otherwise benefit them by allowing them to look at and address the causes of their distress. 

And what are those causes? Often they’re linked to the way we work and live, our government and economy, and this is where my critique comes in. In promoting mindfulness as a cure for the associated stress and anxiety these trigger, it shifts the burdens of society unfairly onto the individual, pressuring us to find ways to keep up our sense of productivity and mental capital, by optimising our psyche. 

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We’re stressed, so we turn to mindfulness. It offers temporary relief, like taking an aspirin. So even though people are getting benefits, they can lose sight of the larger issues around the stress, anxieties, and insecurities, even anger, tied up with the way our economy is operating and inequities in society. And so mindfulness programmes and techniques – maybe unwittingly – become complicit in perpetuating the causes of stress. Even after we’ve taken the ‘cure’, overwork, lack of support and so on haven’t gone away. 

A distorted view

What’s more, promoters of mindfulness frame it as a private practice, yet there’s a great deal of loneliness and isolation in society and the solitary nature of mindfulness perpetuates that isolation. Traditionally, Buddhist meditation, where mindfulness finds its roots, was practised in communal or group settings, with a teacher who had experience and training. Meditation wasn’t used to solve a problem or help a person become happier, but to free us from our deep sense of lack. Stripped of its moral and ethical heritage, mindfulness has become commodified and neatly packaged to sell us a promise of a lifestyle invulnerable to suffering and distress. However, with an emphasis on self-sufficiency, this DIY, self-help isolationism is bound to disappoint. 

Ronald Purser is a professor of management at San Francisco State University, author of McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became The New Capitalist Spirituality(Repeater, £10.99) and co-host of the Mindful Cranks podcast.

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