If you’ve read any articles on mindfulness recently, you may have read that:

1. Mindfulness is an easy way to dramatically improve (pick one or more): mental health, physical health, relationships, productivity, and/or whatever you want to improve!

Or you may have read that:  

2. Mindfulness is an over-hyped sham that doesn’t make a difference one way or another!

Or you may have read that:

3. Mindfulness practice actually causes harm!

Confused? Understandably! Let’s explore each of the above claims.

Claim 1: Is mindfulness an easy way to dramatically improve … pretty much everything in your life?

Answer: No!

First, mindfulness is not easy. Mindfulness involves the ability to be aware and attentive of the current experience–even if that experience includes anxiety, anger, or urges–without feeling the need to immediately try to turn off the emotions or act on the urges. Thus, mindfulness practice can sometimes feel difficult and even painful.

Second, mindfulness is not a cure-all. (Nor is anything else in this world.) Which leads to Claim 2.

Claim 2: Is mindfulness an over-hyped sham?

Answer: It depends.

Hype about mindfulness has surpassed the evidence – due to some combination of researchers being overexcited about findings, journalists not understanding research, some studies having logistical or design limitations, and/or results being exaggerated for profit or prestige. The research on mindfulness is still in the early stages, and the hype will likely wax and wane over time.

However, despite the hype, I urge you not to disregard research that has shown benefits of mindfulness in treating dysregulated behaviors (such as substance use or self-injury).  

After all, do you know what else has a history of hype surpassing evidence? Vegetables. And exercise. And vitamins. And even good ol’ hugs. Here’s a newsflash: Contrary to the sporadic hype in the past decades, none of the aforementioned items will dramatically improve every aspect of your life.

  • Has that newsflash caused you to completely write off vegetables/exercise/vitamins/hugs?  If not, I encourage you not to completely write off mindfulness. 

Important: If your motivation to practice mindfulness is at least partially to overcome dysregulated behavior, you are encouraged to seek a mental-health professional who is qualified in utilizing mindfulness in treatment. Mindfulness alone is less likely to fully address dysregulated behavior.

  • After all, if your diet consisted mainly of fast food and dessert, you would (I hope) not expect to automatically become the epitome of health just by adding a daily vegetable. Instead, you would probably need to modify your diet to include a greater variety and ratio of healthy foods to less-healthy foods.
  • Similarly, the benefits of mindfulness in addressing dysregulated behavior have largely been found when mindfulness was a component of empirically supported treatment that also addressed other areas of coping/functioning when needed.

Note: Some well-intentioned, experienced mindfulness trainers may be extremely adept at helping people find spiritual enlightenment, but these trainers are often not qualified to help people address dysregulated behavior and other mental-health issues.

Unfortunately, other self-proclaimed experts may call themselves mental-health professionals without being qualified to do so. Warning: Anyone can legally call themselves titles like counselor, life coach, therapist, and psychotherapist–with absolutely no training or license. For qualified mental-health professionals, seek out professionals whose titles include psychologist, licensed clinical social worker, licensed mental health counselor, or psychiatrist – and/or find a facility certified in treating the behavior of interest. Inquire about the person’s training in treating dysregulated behaviors.

Claim 3: Can mindfulness practice actually cause harm?

Answer: Yes, in certain circumstances – which can almost always be addressed with the guidance of a qualified professional. For example:

  • Due to the myth that mindfulness means always being calm and happy, some people use what they erroneously believe to be mindfulness as a way to deny, suppress, or otherwise avoid negative emotions. However, chronic avoidance of negative emotions actually causes those emotions to increase over time. (See example here.)
  • Also related to the above belief, some people think mindfulness means being utterly satisfied with life exactly as it is. These people may avoid activities that could elicit stress or discomfort, which may lead them to miss opportunities for increased happiness and fulfillment.
  • Some people’s misunderstanding of mindfulness may also lead them to invalidate the emotions of others. For examples, I’ve heard people criticize others for being angry about injustice – with the admonishment that everyone should just “mindfully accept” whatever happens.
  • Mindfulness may also be used in attempt to control others. Examples include companies mandating mindfulness trainings to try to placate employees instead of offering better working conditions or livable wages.
  • Finally, mindfulness practiced without professional guidance may bring up emotions a person is not ready to handle. However, a qualified mental-health professional can work to ensure that a) the chosen mindfulness practice is appropriate for the person’s current emotional functioning, and b) the person has methods for coping with any painful emotions that might arise. (Note: Despite popular misconception, people with posttraumatic stress can practice mindfulness in treatment without harmful effects.)

Of note is that all of the above examples are caused by persons either misunderstanding mindfulness and/or practicing mindfulness without qualified guidance. Thus, proper understanding and guidance can be crucial when engaging in mindfulness practice.

In conclusion: Mindfulness is not an easy cure-all. It is also not utterly worthless, a sham, or (usually) harmful. The truth (surprise!) is not so simplistic.

The take-home message:

  • If you are motivated to practice mindfulness to address dysregulated behavior, you are encouraged to seek out a mental-health professional to guide you through the process. 
  • Working to overcome dysregulated behavior can be difficult and painful – even in the best of circumstances. You deserve to have the support and expertise that can help increase your odds of success.

Thanks to Nancy Burns, B.A., and Cameron Pugach, M.A., for their contributions to this post.

You are reading

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Do Shame & "Rock Bottom" Decrease Dysregulated Behavior? No!

Despite widespread beliefs, shaming does not help. But it can hurt.