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Mindfulness only works for women, study finds: Experts warn the lauded technique is not made for men's emotions

  • Mindfulness teaches people to focus on their current sensations and emotions
  • A new study by Brown University warns nobody has tested how it might affect men and women differently
  • Their study showed women took more from a 12-week course than men
  • They concluded that the practice is catered to stereotypical female emotions 

Mindfulness only works for women, not men, a new study claims.

The meditation method teaches people to focus on their current sensations and emotions - and has rocketed in popularity in recent years.

Indeed, scores of medical studies show the practice helps to fight depression, fatigue, posture, and even diseases by boosting the body on a cellular level. 

But a new study by Brown University warns nobody has tested how its effects might be different for men and women - and according to their research, the results are stark.

A new study by Brown University warns nobody has tested how its effects might be different for men and women - and according to their research, the results are stark

Examining a group of male and female students over the course of 12 weeks, they found women experienced a significant change in their emotional state, while the changes in men were minimal. 

Analyzing the feedback, the researchers claim mindfulness as it is typically practiced is ideal for women, who stereotypically ruminate on things. The practice teaches them to let go of the past and future, and focus on the now.

Meanwhile the biggest stress-driver for male participants was the fact that they distract - completely shutting off past and future worries. Since they were, in general, already focused on the present moment, mindfulness was relatively futile. 

'That was the surprising part,' Dr Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior and of behavioral and social sciences at Brown.

Since this study, though, she has found the same pattern in two other studies under review for future publication. 

'I wouldn't be surprised if this is a widespread phenomenon that researchers hadn't bothered to investigate.'

Dr Britton was quick to insist that the figures are encouraging in the sense that they show a clear benefit for women, who are generally more vulnerable to negative affect and depression.

'Emotional disorders like depression in early adulthood are linked to a litany of negative trajectories that further disadvantage women, such as poor academic performance, school drop-out, early pregnancy and substance abuse,' she said. 

'The fact that a college course could teach women skills to better manage negative affect at this early age could have potentially far-reaching effects on women's lives.'

Co-lead author Rahil Rojiani, a Brown graduate and now a medical student at Yale, said he hopes the study will narrow disparities in mental health care.

'The gender gap in mental health has been inadequately targeted and often only within the standard medical arsenal of pharmacological treatment,' Rojiani said. 'Our study is one of the first to explore the effects of mindfulness across gender.'

The study measured changes in affect, mindfulness and self-compassion among 41 male and 36 female students over the course of a full, 12-week academic class on mindfulness traditions.

The course consisted of papers, tests and presentations, as well as three hour-long meditations a week. 

The meditations included about 30 minutes per session of specific contemplative practice from Buddhist or Daoist traditions.

The gender gap in mental health has been inadequately targeted

Mindfulness has become popular on college campuses, Britton said, as students and administrators look to it as a potential way of helping students manage stress or depression. 

Students filled out questionnaires at the beginning and the end of the class. 

Over that time the average student had engaged in more than 41 hours of meditation in class and outside. 

There was no statistically significant difference in the amount of meditation practice by gender. 

Men and women also entered the class with no difference in their degree of negative affect.

As a group, the 77 students also did not leave the class showing a significant difference in negative affect.  

Alongside those changes in affect, each gender showed progress in skills taught as part of meditation. 

Both genders gained in several specific mindfulness and self-compassion skills and their overall scores increased significantly. 

That finding shows that the classes were effective in teaching the techniques, though women made greater gains than men on four of five areas of mindfulness.

When the researchers dug further into the data, they saw that in women several of the gains they made in specific skills correlated with improvements in negative affect.

'Improved affect in women was related to improved mindfulness and self-compassion skills, which involved specific subscales for approaching experience and emotions with non-reactivity, being less self-critical and more kind with themselves, and over-identifying less with emotions,' the authors wrote.

Meanwhile, among men, only one of the specific skills was associated with better affect.

'To the extent that affect improved, changes were correlated with an improved dimension of mindfulness involving the ability to identify, describe and differentiate one's emotions,' they wrote.

Dr Britton said the results suggest mindfulness regimens, at least as they are often structured, may be better attuned to addressing the ways that women typically process emotions than the ways that men often do. 

Mindfulness guides practitioners to focus on and acknowledge feelings but to do so in a non-judgmental and non-self-critical way.

'The mechanisms are highly speculative at this point, but stereotypically, women ruminate and men distract,' Dr Britton said. 

'So for people that tend to be willing to confront or expose themselves or turn toward the difficult, mindfulness is made for [improving] that. 

'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. 

'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.'

If that hypothesis is supported in further research, the findings may yield an important strategy for the designers of mindfulness curricula. 

For women, the message may be to stay the course, but for men the best idea may be to tailor mindfulness differently.

'Mindfulness is a little bit like a drug cocktail - there are a lot of ingredients and we're not sure which ingredients are doing what,' Dr Britton said. 

'But I think a strategy of isolating potential 'active ingredients' and using slightly more innovative designs to tailor to the needs of different populations is what's called for.'

For fellow mindfulness researchers, Dr Britton said, the study emphasizes a benefit to accounting for gender. 

Had she not done so in this study, she would have reported a null effect on affect when in fact women benefitted significantly. 

At the same time, if the study population had been heavily skewed toward women rather than more balanced, she might have measured a stronger benefit that would have been improperly extrapolated to men.

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