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Do mindfulness apps actually work?

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Mindfulness is part of A trillion dollar wellness industryrepresenting 1.5 to 6% of annual expenditure worldwide (estimated at more than $200 million) on wellness products and services.

Smartphone apps, in particular, have exploded in popularity, offering incredible promise for mental health with broad reach and low-cost scalability. Poor mental health was on the rise before the pandemic but reached new heights during this one. As a result, COVID has created never seen before demand for mindfulness applications and online course.

It’s no surprise that people have turned to mindfulness as a result of the past stressful years and its massive promotion. And while there may be some benefits, it alone cannot treat poor mental health and should not be relied upon to do so.

What does the research say about mindfulness for the treatment of mental health?

In-person mindfulness-based programs, such as those for stress reduction, which often include health information and the practice of guided meditation, show moderate benefits in healthy people and those with disorders. mental.

Among healthy populations, a full review shows that mindfulness-based programs help relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression, and distress the most and, to a lesser extent, promote well-being.

Among people with a psychiatric diagnosis, a full review shows that mindfulness-based programs can help treat anxiety and depressive disorders, as well as pain disorders and substance use disorders. But mindfulness-based programs don’t outperform standard talk therapy.

For structured online mindfulness programs (digital variations of programs such as mindfulness-based stress reduction), a exam shows that the benefits are small but still significant for depression, anxiety and well-being.

What about mindfulness apps?

The evidence on mobile phone interventions and applications is less positive.

A recent full review mobile phone interventions (including apps) combined the results of 145 randomized controlled trials involving 47,940 participants. The study looked at text messaging interventions and apps for a number of mental health conditions compared to no intervention, minimal intervention (such as health information), and active interventions (other programs known to work). The authors “did not find compelling evidence to support a cellphone-based intervention on any outcome.”

A exam Mindfulness apps, included in the full review above, found well-designed randomized controlled trials for only 15 of the hundreds of apps available. Overall results were low to moderate for anxiety, depression, stress, and well-being. While these results seem positive, most studies (about 55%) compared apps to doing nothing at all, while 20% compared apps to controls like audiobooks, games, relaxing music, or math training.

When the apps are compared to well-designed treatments, the effects are often less promising. A study comparing a mindfulness app to a “sham” (something that looked like mindfulness but wasn’t), the app was no better.

But does it hurt?

Evidence shows that mindfulness meditation may actually make things worse for some people.

A recent meta-analysis which reviewed 83 meditation studies, including 6,703 participants, found that 8.3% of people became anxious, depressed, or experienced negative changes in thinking during or after practicing meditation.

Other research suggests people first exposed to meditation through an app may be more likely to experience adverse effects such as anxiety, depression, or worse.

While apps and other forms of meditation are relatively inexpensive, if they don’t work, the return on investment is low. Although the costs may seem relatively low, they can represent significant costs for individuals, organizations and government. And some learning modules and training programs cost thousands of dollars.

Mindfulness should be used ‘along with’, not ‘instead of’

Investment in these programs is not a problem in itself. Mindfulness meditation (including various digital offerings) has tremendous benefits potential. The problem is that mindfulness is not enough and should be used in addition to first-line mental health treatment, such as psychotherapy and medication, not in place of first-line treatment.

More concerning is that some mindfulness apps claim they can prevent mental health issues. There is not yet enough evidence to be able to make these claims.

In a world where people face so many challenges spanning social and income inequality, unprecedented environmental change, war, economic instability and global pandemics (to name a few), we need to choose support programs very carefully.

Although mindfulness may have some benefits for some people, it is not a substitute for frontline treatment for mental health issues.


Nicholas T. Van DamAssociate Professor, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.