Daily Life


Why mindfulness may not be as effective as experts claim

If you learn to be present in each moment, happiness is all yours. At least, that's the promise of mindfulness. The only problem? It's impossible. 

"If we were in the present all the time we'd be cats, who are quite comfortable in the moment but are not planning for the future or thinking about the past," says psychologist Dr Marny Lishman. 

"Our brain mechanisms are powerful because we have the ability to learn from our past mistakes, predict the future and make the right decisions to go forward." She acknowledges that mindfulness can be a positive element in our lives but adds, "There are some things we use mindfulness to stop that we actually need." These include:

Stress Excessive stress is bad for us, but stress does have a role. "We need our stress response for survival – to kick us into action to behave in ways that are good for us," Lishman says.

Emotional control "Sometimes we need to have an emotional response and let it flow," says Lishman. "We need to get sad and cry; we need to get angry and hit something."

Blocking negativity "We try to push away negativity but we need the dark and the light, the good and the bad," says Lishman. "The real aim is to work through those things and to experience life deeply." 


Detachment "We can't just disconnect from those around us," says Lishman. "That connection is an integral part of life's ups and downs."

Over-thinking "Sometimes we need to over-think things to make the right decision," Lishman explains.

Psychotherapist Nikola Ellis warns that people with "depression, anxiety or psychosis may be at risk of exacerbating symptoms by engaging in introspective practices such as mindfulness".

In a similar vein, a recent study found that mindfulness techniques can only reduce emotional and physical symptoms by a small to moderate degree, making them far from the life-changing solution we're told about. Part of the problem is that Western versions of mindfulness stray too far from the practice's roots. It's a Buddhist philosophy that is just one element of a complex set of spiritual practices, and simply plugging it into our world doesn't work. 

"Mindfulness has been divorced from the broader context in which it was originally conceived," says Ellis. "This makes it a partial practice only, which limits its value."

Approaching mindfulness as a single solution sets us up to fail. And while Lishman admits she often recommends mindfulness to her patients, she says it's just one of several strategies and it needs to be implemented realistically. "Mould it to suit your life. It can ground you in the moment and have a good, calming effect."