What Mindfulness Can (and Can't) Do for Us
Mindfulness is great, but not a one-size-fits-all solution to life's problems.
Posted Dec 03, 2020
Recently, an acquaintance of mine got into mindfulness meditation and is now spreading the gospel that meditating every day has not only made her happier and more productive, it’s even helped her heal injuries.
Hold up. Heal injuries? How?
She offered an example. She explained that she recently lightly cut her thumb. To help with healing, she just stopped and meditated with her full attention on the cut twice per day. The thumb scabbed over and healed within a couple of days. She felt that was a lot faster and less painful than usual.
“You also cleaned the cut to prevent infection, right?” I asked.
“No, no, you don’t need that," she said. "Your body will always heal itself if you really meditate mindfully.”
While I’m pleased my friend is in good spirits and experiencing less discomfort, her mindfulness-is-a-cure-all stance had me a bit more than concerned. And she isn’t the only one jumping on the mindfulness-fixes-everything train.
The popularity of mindfulness
Mindfulness seems to be everywhere these days and its popularity is only continuing to grow. Everyone and their next-door neighbor are getting into it! Neuroscientists, doctors, corporate executives, lifestyle gurus... they're all excited about its potential for improving our lives.
There’s reason for the hype. Research shows that mindfulness can help to reduce cancer-related symptoms, improve the childbirth experience, reduce stress and increase empathy, and promote healthier eating habits. Nowadays, as more and more of us mental health professionals are incorporating it into our therapies, it’s hard to talk to a therapist without mindfulness coming up.
But is there the chance we’re all getting a bit too carried away? Is mindfulness really a cure-all?
What mindfulness is... and isn't
First, let me say that I’m a big cheerleader of mindfulness as a philosophy and a practice. I say this as both a clinical scientist and as a person who practices mindfulness daily. It’s really been helpful through chronic back pain and coronavirus anxiety.
But I also value being careful and aware of how we talk about mindfulness. I don’t want mindfulness to be a passing fad like shoulder pads or Zumba, and that can happen when we exaggerate claims about its effectiveness. For mindfulness to truly help people, it needs to have a consistent place in our culture backed by an accurate understanding of what it is and what it isn’t.
Mindfulness is not (necessarily) meditation
This one is important. Mindfulness and meditation are not one and the same.
Meditation is an activity, something you do. There are many forms of meditation—some involve focusing on our breath, some involve imagining a calming scene, some involving repeating a mantra. Usually, you would need to set aside time and a quiet place to practice meditation.
Mindfulness, however, is more of a philosophy than an activity. It’s an idea: to simply be here and now, without judgment. You don’t need to be secluded or follow a ritual during a specific time to practice mindfulness. You could be washing your car, having a snack, jogging around the park, playing with your dog, singing in the shower… all of these activities can be done in a mindful way by being fully present in the moment.
Of course, you can definitely practice mindfulness using meditation. One of my favorite meditations is the Mindful Breathing practice. You simply breathe and pay attention to your breath without judgment. That’s all it takes.
But not all meditation is mindful. For example, some meditations guide your imagination through a relaxing scene. But mentally traveling to a different place instead of being here and now is the opposite of being mindful. If we think mindfulness always looks like sitting cross-legged and humming a mantra, then we're less likely to give it a try or to cultivate it long-term, so it’s an important difference to understand.
Mindfulness is not a cure-all
Mindfulness has been incorporated into all sorts of psychotherapies, and sometimes even into performance-boosting programs. Lots of headlines make it seem like mindfulness is the miracle elixir for all of our ills, from low motivation to anxiety to insomnia.
But mindfulness is not a cure-all.
Most of the clinical trials that show mindfulness as improving symptoms included other psychotherapy “ingredients” like working through unhelpful thoughts or increasing activity level. So the headlines, if they were accurate, would read more like: “Mindfulness practice plus setting goals and talking to a therapist about your thoughts is helpful for decreasing stress.” Less catchy, but more of the whole picture.
So I like to think of mindfulness as a healthy start—a way for us to connect non-judgmentally with our bodies and minds so we’re not struggling against ourselves when we’re in pain or feeling at odds with ourselves.
Mindfulness does not and should not replace your doctor’s advice or other standard treatments
I hope my friend with the hurt thumb will practice proper injury care next time, like disinfecting broken skin and icing inflammation. But I’m not too worried about minor injuries. It’s serious injuries and health conditions that I want to be really clear about. For those, mindfulness alone is not enough!
There is some research about mindful healing that shows these approaches may be helpful for people undergoing physical rehab after an injury. It doesn’t work miracles—you won’t suddenly turn into Wolverine with self-healing superpowers. But when you're injured, mindfulness can help with managing pain, improving mood, and decreasing fatigue.
When it comes to serious psychiatric conditions, there is some evidence that mindfulness can decrease symptoms of psychosis, but this more applies to improving motivation and daily functioning, not so much hallucinations or delusions.
Mindfulness does not sweep away trauma
Facing trauma is never easy. If you’ve experienced a life-threatening event or childhood abuse, you know that trauma leaves its mark on your body and mind. Even if you don’t have full-blown posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you may have problems like always feeling on edge, having unexplained pain or other physical symptoms, having a hard time handling difficult emotions, or not sleeping well.
The good news is that mindfulness-based practices can reduce PTSD symptoms. The not-so-good news is that reducing symptoms doesn’t mean getting to the other side of trauma, the place where you truly make peace with what happened and with yourself. Trauma burrows deep into our brains, and it won’t simply fade away when you get in better touch with your body and emotions.
For some, mindfulness practice might even trigger trauma flashbacks. This doesn’t mean that people with trauma should not practice mindfulness; it’s actually a good place to start. But ultimately, working with a trauma-focused therapist who can give you evidence-based treatments like cognitive processing therapy (CPT) can help you incorporate mindfulness safely.
Mindfulness is not a tool for patching up physical, mental, or spiritual problems
As a sleep specialist, I often hear patients say they’ve tried mindfulness apps when they couldn’t fall asleep. But they also tell me this technique often doesn’t work. The problem is that mindfulness is not a fix-it tool. It’s not something to be whipped out every so often when things go awry. Instead, it’s a philosophy and a way of being.
Your body and mind need to learn how to be mindful over time—this isn’t easy! Just as you wouldn’t sit on the couch all year and then expect to run a marathon, you can’t go around unmindfully all the time and then expect to be good at it when you run into stress, pain, or insomnia.
Besides, if you’re using mindfulness to avoid problems, you’re missing the point. Mindfulness teaches us to fully feel and accept our experiences, including the hard ones. The hope is to cultivate an authentic relationship with ourselves and our surroundings, not to patch up whatever we don’t like.
Mindfulness is about paying attention
To sum up, mindfulness is powerful. It can serve as a solid foundation for self-awareness and well-being. But it won’t solve all your problems and it’s a philosophy to be cultivated.
When we boil it down to the basics, being mindful really just means paying attention to reality through our senses. It means watching the leaves and flowers when we run through the park instead of going on autopilot. It means letting yourself feel discomfort fully instead of trying to ignore it. It means really tasting the food you’re eating, instead of inhaling your soup while working at your desk.