/Mindfulness during a pandemic: Can it help?

Mindfulness during a pandemic: Can it help?


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Can mindfulness help people cope with the pandemic? Westend61/Getty Images
  • Research has shown that mindfulness practice can help people manage anxiety and stress.
  • A recent study explores online mindfulness classes as a means of helping people manage the emotional toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Most participants said that they found the researchers’ online mindfulness session helpful.
  • Interest in mindfulness increased between May and August 2020.

Mindfulness is a mental practice in which a person directs their attention to the present moment, having a nonjudgmental awareness of their immediate surroundings, thoughts, and feelings.

A study by researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, NC, investigates the therapeutic value of online mindfulness sessions for people who have found that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their emotional health.

After an experimental online mindfulness session, 89% of participants reported that the experience had been helpful.

The principal investigator for the research is Dr. Rebecca Erwin Wells, M.P.H., of Wake Forest School of Medicine, who says:

“We are all born with the capacity for mindfulness. It can help reduce stress and anxiety, and mindfulness meditation practice can help enhance this ability.”

The inspiration for the study comes from a program of free daily mindfulness sessions called “Mindfulness for Milan,” which Italian physician Dr. Licia Grazzi presented during the lockdown period. Dr. Grazzi is one of the recent study’s co-authors.

The results appear in the journal Global Advances in Health and Medicine.

From March 23 to August 4, 2020, the researchers recruited healthcare professionals, individuals with migraine, and the general public to participate in their study.

Of the 233 participants, 203 came from 116 different zip codes in the United States. In addition, there were 20 participants from other countries and 10 people who participated from unknown locations.

The researchers asked each of the participants to complete a pre-session survey, take part in a 15-minute online video mindfulness session, and then respond to a post-session survey.

Of those taking part, 63% had never practiced mindfulness before.

The session began with a white coat-wearing female instructor providing an overview of mindfulness. A guided practice followed that instructed individuals to bring their attention to the present moment, their breathing, and simply “being.”

The practice encouraged the gentle release of thoughts, feelings, and sensations throughout the session. A bell sound signaled the start and end of the session.

Of the 144 individuals who completed the post-session survey, 76% said that the experience reduced their anxiety, while 80% reported feeling less stressed.

Slightly more than half of the participants — 55% — said that the class allayed their concerns about COVID-19.

Overall, 89% of people felt that the session helped them, with the same percentage considering the online format to be effective. In total, 74% said that they would recommend online mindfulness sessions to their friends and family. Individuals were also interested in more sessions, either weekly (48%), daily (36%), or monthly (17%).

Just under two-thirds of the participants — 65% — were interested in learning more about mindfulness. An additional 24% said that they might be interested.

The researchers note that 21% of participants were retirees, suggesting that age does not limit the value of mindfulness practice.

The study’s authors note several limitations of the research.

Firstly, the completion of the post-session survey may have been affected by some participants continuing to meditate after the session, which would give too much weight to the opinions of non-meditators. Participants may also have become distracted after the session or experienced technical issues.

Secondly, most of the sessions occurred in the early months of the pandemic, possibly artificially heightening people’s emotions and the effect of the session.

Finally, the participants in the study were overwhelmingly white (84%). The authors note:

“Further investigation is needed to understand the reasons behind lack of participant diversity: recruitment methods vs. lack of interest or access. While online programs improve accessibility, lack of internet or low technological proficiency may create disparities for some populations.”

The researchers also conducted an analysis of interest in mindfulness online. They collected the results of Google searches for the Boolean phrase “mindfulness + COVID” on both May 19, 2020 — toward the start of the pandemic — and August 23, 2020.

On the first date, searches yielded 63.5 million results, whereas there were 96.4 million results on the second date. This 52% increase in the number of sites on which the search phrase appeared suggests a growing interest in mindfulness as the pandemic continued.

The study also contains a list of recommended online mindfulness resources.

A Google search for “mindfulness-based stress reduction” classes led the authors to extensive online mindfulness resources, guided recordings, and external links that members of the Academic Consortium for Integrative Medicine and Health had provided.

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