Over recent years we have seen a boom in the push for mindfulness. The practice, derived from Buddist teachings, encourages individuals to focus on the present moment, and remove all judgement from thoughts, instead allowing them to pass by.
I first came across mindfulness in my second year at university studying psychology. This was 2012, and mindfulness was largely unheard of at the time. Me and my tutor group were called into a meeting where we were informed of our topic for an upcoming experimental assessment – the effect of mindfulness on symptoms of depression and anxiety. During the meeting, my tutor had us complete a 10-15 minute mindful body scan. I vividly remember the 7 of us being crammed into his tiny office (seriously it was the size of a shoebox), eyes closed, and feeling a panic attack brewing. Not wanting to make a scene I sat through it, feeling as if my heart was beating out of my chest, internally screaming for it to end.
What my tutor had failed to warn us about was the fact that in those who have experienced trauma, mindfulness can trigger intense psychological distress.
This set me and and mindfulness off to a bad start. It made me fearful and I began avoiding it for a long time.
When I began my placement year I was put on a research study on Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, directly assessing the impact of a 6 week course for those with recurrent depression. As part of this role I was asked to participate in a course myself before beginning my research. Despite my apprehensions, this was a slightly more pleasant experience. Whilst I still found practicing mindfulness difficult, I developed strategies to simply get through the tasks. To focus my mind elsewhere. When I did try and engage, I felt the same panic and distress I previously felt.
Over the years I have tried mindfulness more times than I can count. I kept being told I needed to try harder. That it was a skill I needed to develop. I’ve even committed to doing it every day for weeks on end. Each time resulting in the same distress with an added frustration that the problem was somehow me.
The issue for me is that mindfulness forces me to be alone in my own mind. And that terrifies me to my core. I’ve previously written about how I can’t sleep in silence, and I almost always have a TV or radio on throughout the day.
Even writing that I’m sure some of you are reading that judgementally. Thinking I should face the distress, that it isn’t ‘healthy’ to be how I am. And maybe you’re right. But for me distress isn’t something I can face alone. Having BPD means psychological distress is incredibly dangerous for me and puts me at significant risk of harm. So please excuse me for choosing not to engage in a practice that might trigger this. When I do face my triggers, it’s within the safety of a therapeutic interaction or with my closest loved ones.
I’m concerned that the recent hype surrounding mindfulness not only isolates an entire population (i.e. for those it doesn’t work for) but it also conviniently draws attention away from other therapeutic techniques. Whilst I completely accept mindfulness is a useful tool, it isn’t a therapy for mental illness. Yet I keep hearing more and more of people being told their mental illness will disappear if they just try harder to use mindfulness – particularly those facing anxiety disorders. This simply isn’t true.
Mindfulness is a symptom-focused approach, similar to CBT. And whilst there is a stack of research suggesting its benefits, ask anyone who has been through CBT or tried mindfulness, they can only help so much. Symptom focused approaches ignore the underlying causes of mental illness in an individual, and whilst offering a band-aid in the form of some basic relaxation skills, they offer limited long term solutions.
I believe we have paid too much attention to mindfulness, as we once did to CBT, as we long for a simple solution to mental illness. One we can find through an app, fit into our commute and do without years of intense therapy. But the truth is mental illness is far messier and complex than this, and pretending its not won’t help.
Proponents of mindfulness also have a ‘get out of jail free card’ when it ultimately fails to provide long-term relief to psychological distress. It was the patients fault. They didn’t try hard enough. Didn’t commit. Didn’t keep going when it got hard. In reality, the patient may simply have reached their plateau. Mindfulness helped as much as it ever could, and can do no more. And that isn’t their fault.
So my plea to you is to accept that mindfulness simply doesn’t work for some people, or some conditions. Please don’t start telling people they need to try harder, or try a new app, or be more committed. Because for some of us, it doesn’t work. And we don’t need to be made to feel like a failure.