Is there anything we're not meant to be doing "mindfully" these days? Whether it's eating, a HIIT workout or even applying makeup, mindfulness has become so ubiquitous that it’s almost lost all meaning. But the mental health trend, which encourages us to be “present” by focusing on our current sensations and emotions, remains popular and is even available on the NHS.
Countless studies have touted the benefits of mindfulness, which range from treating depression or addiction, to anxiety, stress reduction, and general pain management. But research has never explored whether the benefits apply equally to men and women – that is, until now.
It turns out that while mindfulness does help women boost their mood, the same cannot be said for men, according to research by Brown University.
The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, followed 41 male students and 36 female students taking part in a 12-week academic class on mindfulness traditions, which included three hour-long meditation sessions each week. Each student spent about 41 hours meditating in total.
After the 12 weeks were up, there was a clear gender difference in mood. The women’s moods had improved by an average of 11.6 points – but the men’s moods? They were worse at the end of the study.
It’s an intriguing finding, particularly if you’ve ever tried to convince a male partner, friend or relative to try mindfulness and been met with cool indifference or a disdainful sneer.
The findings could be due to the differences in the way men and women deal with emotional distress, the researchers said. Women stereotypically ruminate on whatever is causing them stress, and with mindfulness techniques they learn to focus on the present and let go of past and future worries.
Meanwhile, men tend to distract themselves from their stress – shutting down their past and future worries, meaning mindfulness could be pointless.
Dr Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behaviour and of behavioural and social sciences at Brown, said mindfulness is suitable for helping those who are willing to confront or expose themselves to difficult feelings.
But, she added: “For people who have been largely turning their attention away from the difficult, to suddenly bring all their attention to their difficulties can be somewhat counterproductive," reported The Telegraph.
“While facing one's difficulties and feeling one's emotions may seem to be universally beneficial, it does not take into account that there may be different cultural expectations for men and women around emotionality."
Admittedly, the study’s sample size was small and unrepresentative of the general population, having been conducted on students, the findings provide a compelling springboard for further research.
All this goes to show the importance of choosing the right therapy for you, if you're going through a bad patch of mental health or just need something to help you navigate your way through life's difficulties.