Is Mindfulness Really the Best Way to Reduce Worry?

By Kira M. Newman | March 28, 2017 | 0 comments

A new study examines how different practices benefit people who worry a lot.

If you’re prone to worry, some well-meaning person may have advised you to try mindfulness meditation. Theoretically, focusing on the present and cultivating an attitude of acceptance are effective antidotes to fearful fretting about the future.

And research backs this up: A variety of studies suggest that mindfulness practices can benefit people with anxiety. But is meditation the only, or the best, solution to combat worry?

A new study published in the journal Mindfulness tackles this question by giving high worriers the chance to try one of two practices: mindfulness meditation or savoring different activities. The result? Savoring offers benefits similar to meditation—and some additional ones.

Just over 100 undergraduate students, who scored as “high worriers” on a questionnaire, were recruited to participate in this experiment. They came into the lab for two sessions spaced out over a week; those two sessions both involved either listening to a 20- to 30-minute guided mindfulness meditation or trying something called a “present-moment joy” practice. Before and after each session, they filled out surveys to report on their levels of positive and negative emotions, anxiety, and mindfulness.

The people who learned the mindfulness meditation were guided to focus on the sensations of their breath and, when their mind wandered, to gently bring their attention back to their breathing—a way to focus their attention on the present moment.

In the joy group, participants were first guided through deep breathing. Then, they were instructed to focus on the pleasant, meaningful, and valuable aspects of an activity they were asked to perform—a different way of bringing their attention to the present. In the first session of the week, that activity was to fold clean towels, focusing on the fresh smell and softness; in the second session, they created greeting cards for hospitalized children, enjoying the scented markers and contemplating how this gesture aligned with their values.

Based on the questionnaires completed before and after each session, both mindfulness meditation and the joy practice had similar benefits for participants’ anxiety, negative emotions, and curiosity—an aspect of mindfulness that involves being open to our thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Both activities also increased “decentering,” another aspect of mindfulness that involves seeing those thoughts, feelings, and reactions as temporary mental events rather than stable indicators of reality. (Mindfulness meditation increased decentering more than present-moment joy in the second session.)

“Present-moment focus—regardless of whether it results from Mindfulness Meditation or Joy—reduces the time individuals spend focusing on ruminative and depressive thoughts,” conclude coauthors Jessica D. Nasser and Amy Przeworski of Case Western Reserve University.

That’s a notable finding, given how different these practices are: Mindfulness meditation encourages you to be nonjudgmental, accepting things as they are right now; joy asks you to evaluate what is pleasurable in a given moment and savor it. Similarly, mindfulness meditation involves watching your breath as it is, whereas this joy exercise involved breathing in a specific, relaxing way. 

The guided sessions ended with instructions for how to continue practicing outside the lab, and both groups spent a similar amount of time on the activities at home—suggesting that they have a roughly equal appeal to high worriers.

Present-moment joy did show one marked benefit over mindfulness meditation, though: It boosted participants’ positive emotions. In the end, which practice you choose may depend on what your ultimate goals are.

If your goal is more positive feeling, the authors write, then trying to savor the moment may be the right thing to do. But if you tend to ruminate on specific thoughts and feelings, then “Mindfulness Meditation might be more beneficial than Joy.”

These results are still preliminary. The card-writing activity may have produced warm feelings of kindness and connection that contributed to its effects, for example. And studies comparing these activities with a control group, among a diverse pool of participants, could provide stronger evidence.

Still, this research suggests that worriers might benefit from trying other—perhaps more pleasant—activities besides meditation to cultivate calm.

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About The Author

Kira M. Newman is an editor and web producer at the Greater Good Science Center. She is also the creator of The Year of Happy, a year-long course in the science of happiness, and CaféHappy, a Toronto-based meetup. Follow her on Twitter!


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