Being Mindful of the Mindfulness Trend

Have you ever participated in any of the mindfulness or meditation trends? Using the new Calm app, going to meditation circles, or delving into the ‘self-help’ plans propagated by the media? Before you dive into the mindfulness meditation (MM) trends, you should ensure you’re aware of both their benefits and faults. MM trends have swept through the field of integrative medicine and proliferated into the everyday. MM promises self-awareness, better attention, increased memory, and acceptance by prompting participants to view their breath as a focal object for a set period of time (Wielgosz et al., 2019; Van Dam et al., 2018). It is a non-judgmental practice that promotes feelings of curiosity and attention. Although MM has demonstrated to be beneficial for a broad range of conditions, some scholars argue its damaging effects by medicalizing the ‘every day’. 

MM in Western medicine originated with Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which emerged to reduce stress in ambulatory patients (Wielgosz et al., 2019). It has since grown into a practice that is used for a myriad of conditions as well as for improving the day-to-day. MM is associated with improvements in sustained attention and promotes functioning in the brain subdomains of working memory, mental set shifting, and response inhibition (Wielgosz et al., 2019). A study done by Huberty et al., (2019) looked at the effects of the popular meditation app, Calm, on college students. Groups participating in meditation using the Calm app for an average of 38min/week reported its help in reducing stress. Another study by Gotink et al., (2016) showed certain areas of the brain being activated with an 8-week MBSR program (Figure 1). MM has been well regarded as a beneficial tool and occasionally replaces psychotherapy (Van Dam et al., 2018). Despite this, the practice has often been misrepresented in popular media, often making exaggerated claims about its potential and undifferentiating between the term mindfulness and meditation

Figure 1: various perspectives of gray matter areas activated by MBSR with (A) showing coronal view, (B) showing sagittal view, (C) showing axial view, and (D) showing a three-dimensional view. Increased activation occurs in the prefrontal cortex (blue) and hippocampus (yellow). Whereas the amygdala (green) shows a decrease in activation (Gotink et al., 2016).

The appeal of MM in the media reflects the trend towards popular health and demand for alternative healing practices (Barker, 2014). Framing MM as a way to promote mental health and reduce stress puts obligation on the individual to pursue health and avoid illness. This phenomenon is known as medicalization. Medicalization can be demonstrated in the way society views behaviors such as gambling, natural life processes like aging and pregnancy, feelings of sadness, learning difficulties, and sexual performance (Barker, 2014). Many scholars argue that MM represents a new form of medical social control, orienting individuals as the primary determinant of their health fortune or misfortune (McClean, 2005). Highlighting individual responsibility fosters a victim blaming ideology and ignores social condition that is beyond an individuals’ control (poverty, inflation, stress of school and work, or political conflicts) (McClean, 2005). While in reality, it is normal and valid to be upset about things like inflation and political conflict. 

The controversial view of MM guides a key question; does the ideology of MM lead truly empowering or disempowering consequences? Although certain interventions have different degrees of benefit to different people, it is important to be informed about the personal and societal impact MM has.

References

Barker, K.K., 2014. Mindfulness meditation: Do-it-yourself medicalization of every moment. Social Science & Medicine, 106, pp.168–176. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.01.024.

Gotink, R.A., Meijboom, R., Vernooij, M.W., Smits, M. and Hunink, M.G.M., 2016. 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction induces brain changes similar to traditional long-term meditation practice – A systematic review. Brain and Cognition, 108, pp.32–41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bandc.2016.07.001.

Huberty, J., Green, J., Glissmann, C., Larkey, L., Puzia, M. and Lee, C., 2019. Efficacy of the Mindfulness Meditation Mobile App “Calm” to Reduce Stress Among College Students: Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR mHealth and uHealth, 7(6), p.e14273. https://doi.org/10.2196/14273

McClean, S., 2005. ‘The illness is part of the person’: discourses of blame, individual responsibility and individuation at a centre for spiritual healing in the North of England. Sociology of Health and Illness, 27(5), pp.628–648. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9566.2005.00459.x.

Van Dam, N.T., van Vugt, M.K., Vago, D.R., Schmalzl, L., Saron, C.D., Olendzki, A., Meissner, T., Lazar, S.W., Kerr, C.E., Gorchov, J., Fox, K.C.R., Field, B.A., Britton, W.B., Brefczynski-Lewis, J.A. and Meyer, D.E., 2018. Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(1), pp.36–61. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617709589.

Wielgosz, J., Goldberg, S.B., Kral, T.R.A., Dunne, J.D. and Davidson, R.J., 2019. Mindfulness Meditation and Psychopathology. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 15, pp.285–316. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-021815-093423.


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