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In-Person Group Mindfulness Practice Decreases Psychological Distress

A mindfulness sign.
Credit: Lesly Juarez / Unsplash.
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Researchers from the University of Cambridge conducted a systematic review to explore the effect of mindfulness courses on mental health across different community settings. The results, published in Nature Mental Health, suggest mindfulness groups can improve mental health experiences.  

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a state of being where an individual’s attention rests on the present experience. There is a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and the surrounding environment, without layers of judgement. Living mindfully in the modern world can be challenging; we are often bombarded by distractions that pull our attention away from the present moment, encouraged to multi-task often and engage heavily with technology.

Ancient practices, such as meditation or yoga, can help us to cultivate mindfulness. In their simplest form, they encourage the practitioner to continuously return to an anchor in the present moment – perhaps the breath – when they recognize they have become lost in mental distraction.

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Such practices have been a central pillar of many cultures and spiritual groups in the Eastern world for thousands of years. Over the last decade, mindfulness-based programs (MBPs) have become widespread as tools to promote mental health, particularly in workplaces, educational settings and community settings. The programs are framed as targeting “psychological distress”, a term that includes mental or emotional experiences with negative connotations, such as depression or anxiety.

The effectiveness of MBPs has been the focus of a growing number of studies, which often show variability in their findings. The team at the University of Cambridge wanted to conduct a robust, large-scale study that analyzed randomized clinical trial data on MBPs conducted in person and offered in community settings.

“In our previous work it was still not clear whether these mindfulness courses could promote mental health across different community settings,” explains lead researcher Dr. Julieta Galante, NIHR post-doctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge. “This study is the highest quality confirmation so far that the in-person mindfulness courses typically offered in the community do actually work for the average person.”

Exploring the effectiveness of mindfulness group courses

The team gathered and analyzed anonymized data from 2,371 adults involved in 13 trials that assessed the effectiveness of MBPs, which often intertwine elements of meditation, body awareness and modern psychology. Groups of participants are led by mindfulness teachers over several one-to-two hour sessions, where mindfulness is defined as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment”, the researchers say.

In the studies analyzed, approximately 50% of participants had been randomly allocated placements on MBPs that lasted for eight weeks, and their self-report questionnaire data was compared to individuals that were not involved in MBPs. The trials were representative of eight different countries and participants were aged 34 years old on average.

Galante and team report that MBPs generate a “small to moderate” decrease in adults’ psychological distress. Approximately 13% of participants experience a benefit from undertaking MBP sessions when compared to those that do not. The researchers found that this benefit is not influenced by factors such as age, gender, educational level or existing psychological distress.

“We’ve confirmed that if adults choose to do a mindfulness course in person, with a teacher and offered in a group setting, this will, on average, be beneficial in terms of helping to reduce their psychological distress which will improve their mental health,” Galante notes. “However, we are not saying that it should be done by every single person; research shows that it just doesn’t work for some people.”

She adds, “We’re also not saying you should absolutely choose a mindfulness class instead of something else you might benefit from, for example a football club – we have no evidence that mindfulness is better than other feel-good practices but if you’re not doing anything, these types of mindfulness courses are certainly among the options that can be helpful.”

The pandemic led to a rise in individuals undertaking remote MBPs or turning to apps to access mindfulness practices. “Apps may be cheaper, but there is nowhere near the same evidence base for their effectiveness,” says Galante. “Some apps may say they are evidence-based, but they are often referring to trials that are in-person with a teacher and a group.” Galante intends to explore the effectiveness of apps and solo mindfulness meditation in the future.

Mindfulness course available to you? Go ahead and try it

Many studies that explore an individual’s experience of an intervention rely on self-report data, which can affect the validity of the results – it’s hard to know whether participants are being truthful or exaggerative about their experiences. Furthermore, 71% of the participants analyzed were women, which impacts the generalizability of the data against wider populations.

But, based on the data available, Galante encourages trying out in-person courses if they are accessible to you: “If you are offered an in-person four- or eight-week mindfulness course in a group setting with a teacher, and you are curious about it, I’d say based on this study, just go ahead and try it,” she says. “And for organizations wondering about offering these types of mindfulness courses to members of their community – this research suggests it may be a good investment if their communities express an interest.”

Reference: Galante J, Friedrich C, Aeamla-Or N, et al. Systematic review and individual participant data meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials assessing mindfulness-based programs for mental health promotion. Nat Mental Health. 2023;1(7):462-476. doi: 10.1038/s44220-023-00081-5

This article is a rework of a press release issued by the University of Cambridge. Material has been edited for length and content.