Mental health: mindfulness as a panacea? A conversation about the risks and side effects of a hyped lifestyle

Who doesn't know it: one appointment follows the next, the news is all about war and crises and after work there is still the household that needs to be done.

Mental health: mindfulness as a panacea? A conversation about the risks and side effects of a hyped lifestyle

Who doesn't know it: one appointment follows the next, the news is all about war and crises and after work there is still the household that needs to be done. It's no wonder that our thoughts are often everywhere except for ourselves. If you want to change that, you can commit yourself to mindfulness - that is, living and experiencing consciously in the here and now. What sounds simple, but often represents a challenge. Because living mindfully is not that easy and is not the best choice for everyone, as Prof. Dr. Johannes Michalak and Petra Meibert tell the star. The two are experts in mindfulness-based therapeutic measures and also deal with the negative effects of the practice. A conversation about the risks and side effects of a hyped lifestyle.

Crises shape our time; many people are overloaded and cannot switch off. How can mindfulness help here?Prof. Dr. Johannes Michalak: Studies show that practicing mindfulness during times of stress can help reduce stress and increase well-being. Mindfulness can therefore be a helpful component when dealing with current crises. However, mindfulness is not a panacea in the sense that it works like a switch and then all stress is gone.

But?Michalak: It's more about finding a place of calm in contact with the stresses and enabling access to the many non-stressed areas of our lives that we often overlook in times of crisis. From this situation you can perhaps find a better way to deal with crises without despairing or exhausting yourself.

Mindfulness is often presented as a panacea for stress. Is it really that simple?Petra Meibert: Mindfulness is not the best approach to overcoming crises for everyone at all times of life. It is important that I have an “inner connection” to the principle of mindfulness and that I feel that this principle suits me and could help me. That means I shouldn't just practice mindfulness because others say it's right for me or because science shows it can be helpful. There are also some contraindications, for example acute substance addiction, suicidality or current serious personal crises, in which it must be carefully examined whether and in what form mindfulness can and should be practiced. In such a case, you need a professional companion who is experienced in mindfulness practice.

In addition to the crises that concern us all, there are also more and more people affected by mental illnesses. Does mindfulness make sense if I suffer from depression or anxiety disorders? Meibert: Mindfulness is not a quick way to get rid of fears or depression, but parallel to psychotherapy, well-supervised mindfulness training can be very helpful, especially if the first acute phase of depression or depression Anxiety disorder has subsided.

Michalak: Mindfulness-based methods can lead to positive effects on various psychological disorders - including anxiety disorders or depression. A review of the state of research on mindfulness-based methods, which was published in Perspectives on Psychological Science in 2022 and evaluated data from over 30,000 participants, comes to the conclusion that mindfulness-based programs often work just as effectively or even better than classic therapeutic measures.

What does mindfulness do to us that we should be so careful with it? Michalak: There are a number of studies that have looked at the effects of meditation and mindfulness on the brain. Changes have been demonstrated in the area of ​​the brain that is associated with the regulation of emotions, for example the prefrontal cortex or amygdala. Physiologically, a change in the release of the stress hormone cortisol and an increase in heart rate variability have also been demonstrated.

What is heart rate variability?Michalak: Heart rate variability is the variation in times between consecutive regular heartbeats. It is an indicator of the ability to adapt the heart rate to physical and mental demands. A variable heartbeat indicates good health.

And what does mindfulness change on a mental level? Meibert: Mindfulness can help you gain a new perspective on yourself, your life and your problems. It can help you get more in touch with yourself and get off the “hamster wheel of everyday life” – that is, gain freedom of choice and not live so much in autopilot mode. But mindfulness can also bring us into contact with our positive qualities such as compassion, self-compassion and gratitude. This, in turn, can make us more resilient when dealing with crises and other challenges in life.

Is that why you work with mindfulness-based methods in the clinic? Meibert: Exactly. With us, people learn how to deal with negative or difficult thoughts and feelings and how to stop ruminating. They should be able to accept themselves as they are and learn to gain a little distance from their problems. A different perspective can help to break through otherwise automatic evaluation processes.

However, many people find it difficult to practice mindfulness. Why is that? Michalak: In today's fast-moving world, it's easy to get distracted. Practicing mindfulness means constantly training so that, like a muscle, it builds up and stays strong. This requires patience and humility. As far as I can, I have to be willing to always bring myself back to the here and now and stay there permanently.

What can the introduction to a more mindful lifestyle look like? Michalak: There are a lot of options and everyone should look for the path that is right for them. You can take part in mindfulness courses such as “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR) or find access to mindfulness through books, videos or apps. One advantage of courses is that you can receive support in learning mindfulness and coping with stress from both the group and the expert leading the course. Especially in times of crisis, it is important to cultivate or develop community.

Petra Meibert: To start a more mindful lifestyle, it is advisable to integrate smaller exercises into your everyday life. For example, eat meals consciously, without rushing, and learn to enjoy them again. Take a walk in the park or forest to get some exercise. Being in your body and feeling good or noticing how the water feels on your skin when showering. It's about access to the immediate experience of a moment, about concentrating entirely on the present and gaining a being-oriented approach to the world. How can a more mindful life be successful in the long term? Meibert: Mindfulness is a path that you choose and at the same time an attitude to life. Maybe you start with an exercise that can be practiced at home and that trains mindfulness: the body scan. In the exercise, you consciously move your attention through your body while sitting or lying down and explore the sensations there. Each part of the body is perceived attentively for a certain period of time - seconds to minutes. Every thought, every emotion, every movement is welcome, but is not captured. Through practice you learn how to deal with anxiety. And without fighting them immediately, because that would cause even more unrest.