The Psychology of Mindfulness

Posted on October 20, 2016

With its roots in various philosophical and religious traditions, especially Buddhism, mindfulness is usually defined as paying attention in a non-judgmental way to one's experience of the here and now. Some psychologists' and practitioners' definitions are broader and speak of compassion for and curiosity about the world. The Oxford Mindfulness Centre, affiliated with the University of Oxford, states: "Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, with compassion, and open-hearted curiosity." A mindful mindset can be adopted deliberately as part of a meditative exercise, but mindfulness is also considered a trait. As a trait, mindfulness is measured by agreement with questionnaire items such as "I intentionally stay aware of my feelings" and disagreement with questionnaire items like "I tend to make judgments about how worthwhile or worthless my experiences are".

Lots of research certainly suggests that mindfulness works, but there are question marks over the rigour of some studies. Many studies claiming the effectiveness of mindfulness fail to include a stringent control group, and thus it is unclear if the effects arose from mindfulness or other factors, such as non-specific support from a group. Increasingly, aspects of mindfulness meditation are being incorporated into forms of therapy. For instance, a meta-analysis and review from 2012 of controlled trials found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy successfully helps prevent depression relapse.

There's some evidence that mindfulness meditation can be unhelpful or even harmful for some people. Instances of adverse effects can be placed in three categories: mental health (e.g. anxiety, depersonalisation and hallucinations), physical health (e.g. seizures, double vision); and spiritual health (e.g. religious delusions). Mindfulness might be risky for some vulnerable people, as meditation, when practiced intently, leads one into deep exploration of 'inner space'. Thus, long-held grief, body tension, and critical or judgmental thoughts may be met perhaps for the first time with full attention, and this may be too overwhelming for people who are not emotionally stable and ready to handle it.

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Category(s):Meditation, Mindfulness, Mindfulness Meditation

Source material from British Psychological Society