Mindfulness: Just Another Health Crazed Fad?

Learning to be in the present moment is not a substitute for western medicine.

Posted Mar 03, 2018

"During the past two decades, mindfulness meditation has gone from being a fringe topic of scientific investigation to being an occasional replacement for psychotherapy, tool of corporate well-being, widely implemented educational practice, and "key to building more resilient soldiers." Yet the mindfulness movement and empirical evidence supporting it have not gone without criticism". 

Kristen Fuller
Source: Kristen Fuller

Mindfulness is an active, open attention on the present and can really fine-tune your feelings and perspectives in order to manage stress, negative thoughts and anxiety. Processing your emotions and thoughts before you take action and reflecting on your past actions can give you insight into the present and can allow you to navigate life in a more present and mature light. However over the past few years, mindfulness has become so popular that it is being substituted for western medicine. Although mindfulness can help anxiety and stress, it is not a treatment for chronic pain nor is it a replacement for a medical workup. This theory of mindfulness is being thrown around by doctors, yoga teachers, therapists and is becoming a trendy theory on social media; eventually it may even be written on a t-shirt, “mindfulness and mimosas”.  Hundreds of female patients are being prescribed meditation and mindfulness as a pain reliever, instead of undergoing a full medical workup, including a consultation with a neurologist and pain management specialist. The goal of chronic pain is to not be prescribed pain medications, or mindfulness for that matter, but undergo a full detailed workup in order to attempt to find the underlying cause of the pain. Yes, many cases of chronic pain will not have an underlying clear-cut mechanism but substituting mindfulness for diagnostic imaging such as an MRI can leave the patient disempowered. Studies have shown that primary care physicians are prescribing mindfulness to individuals, mostly women, who have cauda equina syndrome, spinal disc degeneration, and cervical disc compression. Studies have shown that women often underreport pain and are taken less serious when their pain is reported.

"The moment we start talking about wounded women, we risk transforming their suffering from an aspect of the female experience into an element of the female constitution— perhaps its finest, frailest consummation. The ancient Greek Menander once said: “Woman is a pain that never goes away.”He probably just meant women were trouble, but his words hold a more sinister suggestion: the possibility that being a woman requires being in pain, that pain is the unending glue and prerequisite of female consciousness". 

History of mindfulness

 Mindfulness was the brainchild of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist, and meditator, who in 1979 decided to combine his two passions. He approached the University of Massachusetts Medical Center with what he called a mindfulness-based stress reduction program for chronic pain patients. The doctors embraced his approach and enrolled their patients who had failed all previous treatments in the rigorous 10-week, supervised, daily meditation and yoga practice. The goal was to help alleviate the stress and suffering brought on by living with chronic, painful conditions that cannot be treated with westernized medicine. However, since this initial trial took place at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center most mindfulness interventions today rarely resemble the original Kabat-Zinn’s supervised mindfulness program, which is now rarely covered by medical insurance. Today, mindfulness therapy has become a quick fix for piecemeal workups for chronic pain and is currently a $4 billion dollar industry.

Minding the mindfulness gap

In 2017, an international consortium of prominent neuroscientists and mindfulness researchers co-authored an article called 

 “Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation,” arguing that scientists need to do more rigorous research before applying mindfulness and meditation in clinical settings. First, they write that the terms need to be more clearly defined—mindfulness, as we’ve seen, can range from downloading MP3s and videos to Kabat-Zinn’s supervised gold standard. 

Kristen Fuller
Source: Kristen Fuller

Mindfulness as a way to cure the opioid epidemic

The opioid epidemic is killing thousands of individuals each year and physicians are becoming stricter in prescribing narcotics to patients in an effort to combat this epidemic. Stricter guidelines for opioid prescriptions are a good thing however it is still important to acknowledge the pain and provide the proper treatment. Many physicians are turning to mindfulness as a replacement for opioid prescriptions because they do not want to be involved in the current opioid epidemic. Mindfulness seems like an easy way out, a way for doctors to feel like they are providing their patients with some form of treatment without contributing to the addiction crisis. Mindfulness also fits the picture of the current mainstream media of “you are responsible for your own destiny”. In other words, our society is giving us false hope that through self-management an individual can take control of his or her own life and their own pain if they have the right attitude and daily practice. Pain, whether acute or chronic, can be debilitating and the stress and anxiety associated with the pain may be treated with mindfulness and individuals may be able to tolerate a higher pain threshold if they undergo Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness therapy but being dismissed from receiving a thorough medical workup and a referral to a specialist simply because you are a “pain patient”, is leading individuals to turn to the streets in order to manage their pain through illegally purchased narcotics; worsening the opioid epidemic that so many physicians are trying to fight.

Mindfulness itself isn’t the problem—it’s just the newest fad in a health care system that minimizes patient experiences and uses a one-size-fits-all model to treat the endless variations within bodies. 

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